Thursday, November 20, 2014

Israel Horovitz gives the Hub five hits - and one literal bomb - in "Six Hotels"

Matthew Zahnzinger and Johnnie McQuarley trade war stories in "Speaking of Tushy".

It comes about halfway through "Six Hotels," the Hub Theatre Company's kicky compendium of six Israel Horovitz one-acts (which closes this weekend at Club Cafe) - and it seems to come from nowhere.  So far the evening's entertainment has been heavy on clever but broad situations, studded with light, if obvious, wit (mostly built around the mechanics of bad dates, chance meetings with worse exes, etc., etc.) One script is even titled "Speaking of Tushy," if that gives you any idea of how low Horovitz is willing to go for a horse laugh.

But then comes "Beirut Rocks."

And at that point either the evening totally goes to hell - or suddenly it's the most thrilling political theatre of the year. Speaking personally, I'd rate it "thrilling" - but the audience I saw it with, I must admit, looked stunned before it was over. They didn't seem able to believe what they'd just seen: a Beirut hotel room shuddering from the thunder of explosions, a wannabe Arab terrorist stripped bare, an arrogant American Jew spouting hatred, a gaggle of entitled college kids struggling to stay afloat in a rising tide of threats - the crowd looked as shell-shocked as they might have if Horovitz had dropped a literal bomb on them.

Lauren Elias enjoys Johnnie McQuarley's "room service" in "The Hotel Play."

For the record, Horovitz (who of course is Jewish) makes no anti-Israel statement here; and his Palestinian terrorist (who, ironically enough, has been raised in America) gives at least as good as she gets when it comes to hatred. Still, simply dramatizing the kind of invective that spews from the spoiled Jewish college kid in this script counts as a major breakthrough for the local theatre, and what it's brave enough to say (at least when other Jews say it) about the grisly deadlock in Gaza and the West Bank. Whoa - so much for Anne Frank! I thought as the shock wave rolled over the audience - and I wondered, given the sudden rise in critical views of Jewish characters this season, whether something larger might be afoot in the theatrical landscape. Could our local theatre ever begin to treat the ongoing crisis in the Middle East honestly - or even seriously?

One can only hope! But it's also hard not to argue in the case of "Six Hotels" that the immediate lurch back to Comedy Central (with the very next sketch!) was enough to induce whiplash in any thoughtful viewer (and could understandably read as insulting to some).  Nor does anything else in the evening reach anything like the dramatic heights of "Beirut"- although the penultimate script, "The Hotel Play," has its ruefully telling moments. 

Still, guts count for something - maybe they count for a lot; and the Hub Theatre Company certainly has guts. And smarts - the quartet of rising actors at Hub (Lauren Elias, Johnnie McQuarley, Ashley Risteen,  and Matthew Zahnzinger) all display impressive comic chops (under the tight direction of Daniel Borque and John Geoffrion) - even when their youth or type (I know, "type"!) makes them perhaps not entirely convincing in a particular role; you end up admiring their moxie even if you don't quite buy them as jaded adulterers or half-hearted rentboys, for instance. It's Ashley Risteen, however, who breaks from the talented pack and I'd say qualifies as the "find" of the production; she's utterly believable as both a Palestinian killer and a Brooklyn gal trying to do a Boston accent - about as wide a stretch as any actress may have ever been asked to make!

As for Horovitz - he's well served by Hub, even when he seems to be off-handedly playing with fire just for shits and giggles.  To be honest, none of these scripts (not even the brutal "Beirut Rocks") is for the history books.  But they all pulse with this playwright's distinctive energy; indeed, Horovitz seems able to toss off a fierce little play as easily as a song. I only wish he'd ponder one of his melodies long enough to give us a full symphony.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Lost under the Ether Dome

James Youmans' striking set for Ether Dome. Photos: T. Charles Erickson

I suppose playwright Elizabeth Egloff makes no big mistakes in Ether Dome, her sprawling account of the discovery of anesthesia (which wraps its run at the Huntington's Calderwood Pavilion this weekend).

But she makes no big decisions either - and this, coupled with many missteps in terms of focus and form, leads the playwright to wander back and forth over the historical record without ever gaining any dramatic traction on her topic. The resulting assemblage of scenes does boast some effective moments - Egloff has a healthy skepticism toward the "great men" crowding the halls of our own Mass. General (where ether was first systematically introduced), and so often floats an amusingly mordant tone; and she briefly entertains larger political ideas and philosophical perspectives - indeed, you can sometimes sense the author musing on the various episodes of her own play even as it proceeds. Which made me wonder whether the whole thing might work as a miniseries, where diffuseness counts for less. Because as a "play," alas, Ether Dome barely exists.

Although to be fair, wrestling the messy story of the invention of modern surgery into theatrical shape would be a challenge for any dramatist.  There are three, and maybe four, key players in the story - the idealistic dentist, Horace Wells (Michael Bakkensen) who first glimpsed the possibilities of nitrous oxide as a painkiller; his unscrupulous assistant, William Morton (Tom Patterson), who had his eye forever on the main chance; the arrogant John Collins Warren (Richmond Hoxie), the head of surgery at Mass. General, who was confidently blind to the transformative discovery staring him in the face; and the visionary Charles Jackson (William Youmans), who dreamt of many more inventions than he ever managed to actually invent.

Arrogance and avarice meet over the operating table.
But wait, there's more - much more, actually, some of it in Hartford, some of it in Boston, and some of it even in Paris! Thus as the plot not so much thickens as fissures, we long for some vivid core of this strange, eventful history to come to the fore, while the rest fades into the background; but Egloff lacks the technical skill to sculpt so complex a narrative into coherence - instead she reprises her horror-of-surgery gambit, takes repeated detours into dramatic dead ends, and often "cuts away" from a conflict just as it's coming to a head.

But the bottom line is that she simply never decides on any particular focus. Which means she is left with no real theme, either. At the close of the play, after several lives have been wrecked by the intrigues that played out under the Ether Dome, head surgeon Warren scratches his head over the whole debacle and wonders how it ever came to pass.  

And we feel much the same way.

What's most frustrating about this particular misfire, however, is that the Huntington has done its physical production up right, with a grand, striking set and imaginative projections by James Youmans (at top) - and has also fielded an accomplished cast that not only convincingly breathes the air of the nineteenth century, but seems up to the challenges of playwrights like Ibsen or Shaw (Hoxie and Youmans are the stand-outs, but there's solid work across the board).

Of course current political considerations prevent us from programming too much work by Dead White Men like Shaw and Ibsen - who also, it's probably worth noting, hardly need the ministrations of the development department. Although we also note that Ms. Egloff has been working on Ether Dome since 2005; that's nine years, people. Some have counseled that the play simply needs more surgery (with or without anesthesia, I suppose); and certainly several sequences - such as the sojourn in France - all but cry out for amputation. But I'm afraid I feel differently. Cruel as it may sound, if a play is still on life support after nine years, I think it's time to pull the plug.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Good news about Bad Jews

Daphna attacks! Alison McCartan, Victor Shopov, and Gillian Mariner Gordon in Bad Jews.  Photos: Craig Bailey

I'm afraid anti-Semites will be disappointed by Bad Jews, Joshua Harmon's acid take on the current state of dysfunction in the tribe of Judah (which plays through this weekend in a nastily crackling production at SpeakEasy Stage). Because the title's just a come-on - Harmon's Jews aren't really "bad" because of any nefarious conspiracy against the goyim, as the tinfoil-hat crowd would have it; they're "bad" because of their attitude toward their own Jewishness, its fraught legacy, and their responsibility toward their tribe.  In a word, these aren't so much "bad" Jews as judgy Jews.

And judging from this playwright's jaundiced, knowing view of certain Manhattan precincts (the whole show plays out in a one-room condo on Riverside Drive), every Jew seems to think of the rest of the tribe as "bad" to some degree or other.  Of course this is perhaps only the inevitable result of a great tradition's slow divergence into many streams; "Jewishness" now yokes together a continuum of religious observance and political affiliation ranging from the Haredi to Jon Stewart (born John Stuart Liebowitz, btw). So the Jews, longtime advocates of diversity, have plenty of diversity to celebrate themselves - which, Harmon hints, only cloaks opposed philosophical and spiritual agendas, ongoing blood feuds and clashes on issues of gender, sex and race, and a perhaps unbridgeable divide over the ongoing project to establish the land of "Greater Israel" on the West Bank.

A traditional "chai."
Got all that? Well, don't worry, you won't really need it to enjoy the poisonous pleasures of Bad Jews, which isn't so much a political tract as a vituperative character study (or maybe even something like revenge porn). Front and center is one Daphna, née Diana, a Vassar grad who now prefers her Hebrew name to her English one - and indeed prefers all things Jewish to just about everything else. Daphna even plans to move to Israel, and abandon Manhattan's siren call of assimilation (she claims to have a hunky boyfriend serving heroically in the IDF). But before she goes, she is determined to get her hands on a particular family heirloom - the chai heroically preserved by her late grandfather "Poppy" as he somehow survived the Holocaust.

But no, goyishe Starbucks fans, we're not talking about tea. The word "chai" in Hebrew means "alive," and has come to stand as an eternal symbol of triumph over not just the Nazis but all anti-Semites, everywhere, since the Diaspora; thus the glyph formed by its two letters has long been worn as a medallion (particularly by Jewish men), known itself as a "chai" (at left). Chais have traditionally been passed down from one generation to the next - and given the history of this particular talisman, it is, shall we say, almost over-loaded with familial and cultural weight.

Hence Daphna's determination to save it from the clutches of her cousin Liam, with whom she's forced to share that cramped condo the night after Poppy's funeral (his quiet, leave-me-out-of-it brother Jonah is also moping on the sidelines). Liam's pseudo-Irish handle may belie his true identity, but it does accurately telegraph that he's as devout an assimilationist as Daphna is a separatist.  But who can blame him, when his Hebrew name is "Shlomo"? Although alas, Shlomo has run pretty far from that unfortunate moniker - in fact he has all but abandoned the Jews for the Japanese; he's now completing a Ph.D. in Japanese studies at University of Chicago (note that even the institutions of higher learning cited here are precisely calibrated for their obnoxiousness quotient). Worse still, Shlomo's engaged to a shiksa - to whom, in an act of genuine perversity, he wants to offer Poppy's chai in lieu of an engagement ring.

Yes. You may now have limned the clean, cruel lines of Harmon's diagrammatic cage-match: in one corner waits the obnoxious "über-Jew" (to quote the play's own snark), whose piety is mostly a mode of juvenile narcissism; in the other stands the smoothly assimilated yuppie-Jew, who has placed his faith in an idealized, deracinated utopia - just as we're taught we should in civics class! - but who is also genially making his own small contribution to what the Nazis never managed to accomplish: the eradication of Jewish tradition.

It's worth noting, however, that clear as these stakes may be, they're very different types of stakes, and Harmon (sharp as his characters' respective skewers are) is unsure of how to bring them into alignment. We may be eager to see the relentlessly obnoxious Daphna brought low (she's actually a recognizable type from just about every family, in every ethnic tradition); but in the end it's Shlomo who is committing the greater moral crime - and Harmon, though he acknowledges this in a U-turn coda, can't quite bring himself to actually weave Schlomo's calm monstrosity into the fabric of his play.

He's far more interested in nailing Daphna to the wall (or perhaps the cross!), which, as I mentioned, is often satisfying, but occasionally has a creepy revenge-porn edge, and which holds Harmon's rising bonfire of recrimination back from the Albee-esque proportions some have claimed for it. For the viciousness of Albee's characters somehow tears through their social presentation to the hidden truth beneath (we slowly divine in Virginia Woolf, for instance, that George is a greater monster than Martha). By comparison, Harmon lets Shlomo off easy.

Daphna on the prowl.  Photo: Craig Bailey
Still, Daphna deserves much of what she gets, particularly as played by the electrifying Alison McCartan, whose predatory performance is so ferocious that it often seems just a hair's-breadth away from caricature. McCartan's Daphna is a kind of chess-master of the family feud, not to mention a brilliant psychological tactician: she already knows her cousin's every weakness, and so can target his hypocrisies with laser-like precision; but she also expertly sizes up his vapid, unthreatening sweetheart, "Melody" in less than a second - and immediately seizes on the best way to humiliate her (by exposing the lack of talent that prompted her abandonment of her music studies).

The performance is so deeply inhabited, in fact, that McCartan is most magnetic when she's coiled in repose, brushing her hair obsessively, and planning her next mean-spirited move; but she also gives us the full measure of Daphna's grief, whether it's over her past as that awkward girl who cried when she didn't make cheerleader, or the loss of "Poppy," whom she clearly loved - and who clearly loved her back.

Whether Liam truly loves anyone is more open to debate - although the talented Victor Shopov didn't seem too interested in exploring that pivotal question. He does do a dynamite death-stare, however, and his slow burn is among the best in the business; so his Liam always holds his own against McCartan's Daphna; his eventual meltdown is also brilliantly timed, and amounts to comic gold. But I felt a blank where Liam's condescension to Melody should have been - nor was there much buried tension with brother Jonah (which there must be given the play's last-minute twist).

Still, the emotional spray from his blood-sport with Daphna may distract you from these gaps, as director Rebecca Bradshaw has orchestrated their combat so superbly. Bradshaw is clearly a talent to watch, btw, as she has also drawn subtle portrayals from her supporting cast. As Jonah, newcomer Alex Marz may not quite prepare us for the play's dénouement, but he expertly bobs and weaves his moody way through the family trenches. Meanwhile Gillian Mariner Gordon etches an appealing cameo as the empty, gentle Melody (and her subtle parody of second-rate vocal technique is a cringe-worthy pleasure).

And frankly, it's just nice to see a play with a real edge for a change at SpeakEasy. Bad Jews plays to the personal rather than the political, it's true; but as victimology has of late become this theatre's default mode, it was exciting to see them get back in touch with situations where there are no easy answers, and the heroes and the villains look different in different mirrors. You may not get a clear stand from Harmon on the political questions roiling American Jewry - just a sense of the resulting turbulence. But he portrays this emotional chop all but perfectly, and maybe for a young playwright's first big splash that's enough - particularly given that the sheer theatrical craft on display here (both in script and on stage) puts most of the other new plays on our local boards to shame.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Echoes of Laramie at Merrimack

Todd Lawson and D'Arcy Dersham in Dusk Rings a Bell.  Photos: Meghan Moore.

Not all the critics have been kind to Dusk Rings a Bell, the new script by Stephen Belber - who is perhaps best known as a contributor to the Laramie Project - which is running at Merrimack Rep through this weekend only.  And for my part, I'd never argue the play is perfect.  It opens with an exercise in articulate narcissism that's excessive even for Belber (who has never shaken off the Laramie habit of direct audience address); and there's a curious reticence to the writing that mutes, or sometimes even muddles, the author's intents and themes.

And yet . . . the play somehow haunts. This is partly because, whatever flaws the script may have, its production at Merrimack probably could not be bettered. Driven by two remarkable performances from D'Arcy Dersham and Todd Lawson, under the subtle direction of Michael Bloom,  it's nothing less than superb, and steadily engrossing in spite of its author's occasional tics.  But then the two-hander that sneaks up on you thanks to deeply-imagined star turns is by now a Merrimack tradition. (Which is why I schlep up to Lowell to see their shows!)

It also helps that you can feel a closer personal connection than usual moving beneath this material for Belber, whose local productions have included the unsatisfying Carol Mulroney and The Power of Duff, two rather artificial attempts to limn abstract cases of spiritual angst. This time around, though, Belber has ventured closer to home with a tale of a hyper-articulate yuppie who re-encounters the handsome boy with whom she shared a twilit kiss some twenty years before, on the beach where she summered as a girl. Over those two decades, however, "Molly" ascended (to a perch high in PR), while "Ray" descended - in fact he spent 10 years doing hard time for getting mixed up in a horrific hate crime: he stood by one night as his buddy beat a gay vacationer to death.

Todd Lawson tries to explain the inexplicable.
This, of course, parallels the sad story of Russell Henderson, one of the killers of Matthew Shepard, and hence a central character in The Laramie Project - whom Belber also interviewed personally for its follow-up, The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later. In those interviews, Henderson came off as a malleable soul who lacked both the sadistic edge of his partner in crime, Aaron McKinney (who dealt the fatal blows) and - tragically - the force of will to stand up to him. Recently even more questions have swirled around the status of Shepard's grisly murder as the iconic "hate crime." Was crystal meth a factor in the slayings? Was Matthew Shepard even perhaps sexually involved with one of his killers? These and other caveats have been added by various reporters to a story that has become more and more unstable.

Hence, perhaps, the more-immediate edge moving beneath Belber's work here. For Molly amounts to his factotum in the piece - she is clearly drawn to "interview" Ray in much the same way the author once interviewed Russell: to try to divine how someone so likable and seemingly good-natured could stand by as a horror unfolded.  The question is here all the more pointed as we eventually discover, in an understated coda, that Molly and Ray shared more than just a flirtatious kiss all those years ago: Ray also offered Molly a random act of kindness, a little nudge of re-assurance that may have proved pivotal to her development. So somehow, deep inside, she knows she owes him: but how much?  And can she really "abide," as she puts it, Ray's great crime of omission - even if his true nature is a gentle and generous one?

Over the course of the play's 90 talky minutes, these questions do come to grip us - but I must admit that Belber never presses Molly toward any real moment of truth; he has a strange reticence about the "engineered" dramatic climax that has often compromised his work, and it compromises Dusk Rings a Bell as well.  

Still, up at Merrimack, D'Arcy Dersham, in an exquisitely detailed and pitch-perfect performance, finds veins of feeling in Molly that eventually redeem the character from our first impression of her as morally glib and relentlessly self-centered. But then she has Todd Lawson to work with, who plays a bemused slow hand against all her chatter that slowly hints at something like a lost, but basically trusting, soul. Those who care about serious acting will not want to miss either performance - which I would rate as easily among the best of the year.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Boston Ballet's new Swan Lake

Lakeside with the swan maidens. Photos: Rosalie O'Connor

Expectations were high on opening night of Boston Ballet's new version of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. Artistic Director Mikko Nissinen had promised a re-imagining that would somehow clarify the mysteries of this iconic dance, which is hauntingly resonant and yet strangely vague in its detail. And he had hired designer Robert Perdziola (whose reboot of the Ballet's Nutcracker had proved a triumph) to help him pull it off.  So the thought on everyone's mind as the curtain rose was something like, "Can they do it again?"

Well, the short answer is - "Yes, they can."

Although the longer answer might be: "But not quite the way they think."

For this Swan Lake is indeed a magnificent achievement - Nissinen's choreography is exquisite, Perdziola's designs are ravishing, and the dancing is of course second-to-none (as we expect of the Ballet by now).  The curtain calls went on forever on opening night, and the house shouted itself hoarse.

But are the depths of this particular Swan Lake really any clearer than the rest?  I'd have to answer no, even though Nissinen has added vignettes, and restored some lost sequences of steps - he's quite the dedicated dance archaeologist, in fact, and you can feel rippling through his Lake the legacy of the great choreographers who made the ballet what it is (Petipa and Ivanov of course chief among them, although there are echoes of Ashton in the men's legwork).

That very proclivity, however, may actually work against clarity in this case, as the history of this ballet is one of constant revision - from the very start - and its central trope (Odette's curse) is simply too complex to be explained in mime. You could argue, in fact, that in any historically informed version, Swan Lake will feel oblique; yet you'd hardly care, because it's so mesmerizingly beautiful.

And we don't really want to boil Swan Lake down to anything, anyhow; it's ok if we're a little confused by that wicked-looking dude (the evil Rothbart) who hangs out lakeside, or can't understand who this evil chick is who looks just like Odette and wants to steal her boyfriend. Because in the end, Swan Lake proceeds by the logic of the dream - and the audience doesn't want to be waked.

Of course many a choreographer has nevertheless tried to plug the ballet's seeming plot gaps with explicit Jungian or Freudian tropes - thankfully, Nissinen doesn't go there (best to let these float just beyond the scrim of fairy tale convention).  But his focus on the ballet's history, and the concrete steps themselves, also led to a few dramatic lacunae; there seemed to be no focus in Prince Siegfried's relationship with either his tutor or mother, for instance, because neither supporting figure really gets to dance.

A rapport with a  tender, trusting core: Jeffrey Cirio and Misa Kuranaga.
But elsewhere there were inspired surprises. The movements of the enchanted corps, for instance, were at first more angular and avian than usual - clearly Nissinen wanted to remind us that these maidens were actual swans; and he subtly hinted that Odette's translation into human form was dependent on her tender touches with the Prince (above). In something like the same vein, he opened the final act with an unforgettable tableau - of the swans' graceful necks rising and falling from the mists of their lagoon. And Nissinen triumphed in his choreography for Odile, the wicked daughter of Rothbart who tricks the Prince into betraying his beloved (and thus dashing her hopes of returning to human form) partly by explicitly styling her as a bird of prey.

This proved Kuranaga's finest hour - her Odette was lovely, but her Odile was riveting.  Every step was a pinpoint thrust, every turn was cut by a glittering scalpel; and the ballerina threw off her famous 32 fouettés en tournant like so much candy tossed to the eager crowd. Kuranaga has always been a technical perfectionist; but this time she burned with a special fire born of her own expertise. It may have been the greatest performance I've ever seen her give.

Cirio was likewise in superb form (and easily shook off a spill that came as he leapt through some over-moist mist in the second act).  His leaps and landings were as nimble as ever, and his partnering Kuranaga was sweetly tuned indeed; by now these two stars share a gallant rapport that hints at a tender core - which is just right for Siegfried and Odette.

Elsewhere in the cast the news was equally good. A heavily made-up Lasha Khozashvili conjured a truly diabolical Rothbart - he seemed to streak across the stage during his jetés like a black bolt of lightning. (Khozashvili even pulled off a tricky little sketch, played against the overture, in which Rothbart first casts his malevolent spell over the panicking Odette.)  The work from the corps of swans was, in contrast, gently transparent and controlled, while the pas de chat of the five little cygnets - Ji Young Chae, Shelby Elsbree, Rie Ichikawa, and Seo Hye Han - was delicate perfection.

One of Robert Perdziola's sketches for the production.
Back at court, Dusty  Button and Whitney Jensen were luminous as ever in the opening pas de trois, partnered by a newly confident and supple Roddy Doble; later standouts included a spirited pas de cinq from Ji Young Chae, Lia Cirio, Rie Ichikawa, Paul Craig and Patrick Yocum, and a buoyant Neapolitan dance from Dalay Parrondo and Isaac Akiba.  Here Perdziola's costumes were at their most dazzling, and were often studded with telling details (in one ironic touch, for instance, the princesses summoned to woo Prince Siegfried all sported feathers, too); and they sparkled against his most striking backdrop, a vertiginous view of the palace stairs and ceiling that Escher might have admired.  I think I preferred, however, his final gambit, a poetically spare sketch of the fateful, titular lake, a tiny moon above it, cast like a dime on the dark counter of the night, with a single moonbeam slipping from it like a silver spear.

Of course when it comes to a new version, the first question from a Swan Lake veteran is usually "How does it end?" For while tradition demands the ballet close with tragedy, its central conflict has sometimes been spun toward triumph. Nissinen seems to want things both ways, which doesn't quite satisfy - although part of the problem is that the lovers' final pact leads to something of a vanishing act, rather than a death-defying plunge or some similar stage coup. Oh, well - it was only one small misstep after dozens of dazzling ones!

And luckily there were even fewer errant notes down in the pit, where Jonathan McPhee conducted with a surging sort of sympathy, and the famously lush harp part was spun expertly by Kathleen Lyon-Pingree, as Barbara LaFitte's oboe glided just as yearningly as it should in Tchaikovsky's famous swan theme.  Like everyone involved in this production, they seemed to know they were polishing yet another jewel in the Ballet's growing crown of achievement.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Poems by post, and love at a distance

I can't decide who's cuter, can you?

Audiences seem to like the Lyric Stage's Dear Elizabeth, the love letter from Sarah Ruhl to Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell - perhaps because Ruhl's script is based entirely on these great American poets' own letters to each other (some of which were love letters themselves).

And honestly, I can't really blame folks for falling for this rather bad play (it's by Sarah Ruhl, after all) - because at least it's a nice bad play. The dialogue is witty and disarmingly civilized, for instance, because it's all by Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, and they were indeed great writers (even of prose). And the situations hinted at, dodged, or warily declared in their exchanges are all poignantly adult. So who wouldn't want to spend an hour or two with these two, as they swap war stories, dish on other literary greats, and every so often bare their broken hearts?

So does it really matter if it's a bad play, if it's also (by default) a literate and beguiling one? Well, maybe not - until you ponder how Ruhl has squandered a truly golden opportunity. I mean the correspondence between Bishop and Lowell lasted thirty years - and ran to over eight hundred pages! They were often in near-constant contact, and considered in their conversation more than one turning point in American letters. In short, their epistles are a treasure trove of material.

But Ruhl isn't really interested in any of that.  She's only interested in what she's always interested in - how cute can she possibly make her pen pals, and the poignant distance between them?  How often can she make us say, "Awww . . .", or blink back a tear? I know, I know, winsome distance is her brand, so again - can you really blame her?  I mean that MacArthur prize money won't last forever!

But it's fair to note, I think, that we get a pantload of winsome shit in Dear Elizabeth. Little lanterns on strings, and origami boats, and long-distance toasts - Ruhl seems to be drawing little hearts and stars all over this virtual poetry journal in her patented daydreaming-college-girl style. Of course if you're the type that can't wait to clap for Tinkerbell in Peter Pan, you'll adore all this. And to be fair, Ruhl sometimes did make even me heave a heavy sigh. There's one particularly sweet image, for instance, in which Lowell and Bishop conjure a memory of a past seaside sojourn by opening up a little suitcase - and there's a miniature model of the Maine coast inside! Isn't that adorable?? (All together now: "Awwwww . . . .")

So I suppose Ruhl's mise-en-scène never quite cloys, but when you ponder all the stuff the playwright has left out of her epistolary opus, you begin to yearn for something more than sentimental grace notes.  For despite all the emotional meat on the bones of these missives, Dear Elizabeth is almost skeletal - indeed, if you don't know the back story of these two, you might be slightly lost throughout the play.  Of course not all that much of their mutually difficult lives is directly stated in their letters - but isn't that the theatrical challenge of a piece like this, to suggest the context behind all the gingerly orchestrated semaphore?

By the sea with Bob and Liz.  Photos: Mark S. Howard.

And to be blunt - where is the poetry? Much of the correspondence between these two was about their work, but we only get a small sample of Bishop's greatest hits ("The Fish," "One Art," "North Haven") and really nothing from Lowell at all (probably because the broken ruin evident in his voice would have overturned Ruhl's fangirl conceits). There is one sudden tirade from Bishop over Lowell's distortions in his confessional poem "The Dolphin" that's dramatically exciting - but it's torn from any and all context, as Ruhl has never managed to explore why the confessional style was so fraught for both poets.

It may not help that A. Nora Long's diverting but superficial production punches up the whimsy of the script and generally deep-sixes the letters' buried pain. Bishop was an alcoholic; Lowell was an alcoholic and a manic depressive. Bishop was elusive, prickly, and difficult; Lowell was often, to put it simply, an untrustworthy cad. Thus although their letters constantly bemoan the miles between them, it's not hard to divine why they might have kept their distance - much less why Bishop, a closeted lesbian for much of her life (yeah, sorry, that's what she was) kept the needy Lowell at arm's length, given his many sodden declarations of infatuation.

Yet despite all this, the talented Laura Latreille manages to get somewhere as Bishop - her work is vague (it almost has to be) but at least you can feel her trying to get at the life beneath the letters.  But alas, as Lowell, Ed Hoopman seems content to coast on his sonorous voice and cordial charm; indeed, when one of his epistles suddenly discusses psychiatric treatment at McLean's, we can't believe he was ever there.

Oh, well! At least Latreille could count on the support of some fine production design.  Shelly Barish's versatile set did charm, and Garrett Herzig's projections were always evocative. Ruhl may have kicked the poetry out of her play - for whatever reason - but often these designers seemed determined to sneak it back in.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

What keeps Assassins alive?

The talented cast of Assassins at the New Rep. Photos: Andrew Brilliant.

Before I knew it, the New Rep's Assassins had closed, and I had never given it full consideration while it was still on the boards. Of course Hub Review regulars know that I usually dawdle when I'm torn about something - and I was certainly of two minds about Assassins.

For I've never been much of a fan of this late Sondheim show (and three exposures to it have done little to change my opinion).  Indeed, to me it marks the moment when Steve jumped the shark; but many of the master's fans feel otherwise - the New Rep's Jim Petosa is clearly enamored with it, and to be honest, I had little argument with his production. It amounted to a kind of refinement of the version he mounted at BU a year or two ago; that was strong, but this was stronger still.

But the production still wasn't strong enough to put over the musical's book, which is a botch no matter which way you read it - because author John Weidman's concept is simply unconvincing. Weidman wants to find a common rubric linking America's many actual and would-be assassins - and he seems to think he has found it in our national obsession with identity and celebrity, and the way they're now tied together in a kind of pop-psychological noose. Basically Weidman's assassins all pull the trigger to escape being a nobody, to actualize themselves on the public stage.

Which may be an absolutely accurate analysis of the American public - but not, oddly, of its assassins. Indeed, the first successful American assassin - and a central player in Weidman's script - all but refutes his thesis: John Wilkes Booth was a matinee idol (one newspaper dubbed him "the handsomest man in America") well before he gunned down President Lincoln in 1865.  So it wasn't a need for celebrity that drove him to do the deed - it was his obsessive sympathy with the Southern cause (and no doubt his racism).

At the other end of the celebrity spectrum is Lee Harvey Oswald, who serves as a kind of bookend to Wilkes in the show (and floats through other vignettes like an alien troubadour), but who is even less convincing as an avatar of Weidman's concept.  Whatever you think happened in Dallas on that fateful day in 1963, Oswald was clearly some sort of spook embedded in various hidden political and criminal networks. So it's impossible to buy him as the weird-but-innocent victim of the cosmic conspiracy Weidman conjures here. Indeed, the entire closing scene of Assassins is flat-out idiotic - and only a historical and political illiterate could buy it.

Which, of course, is exactly what Sondheim and Weidman are banking on. The effects of political and economic oppression contributed heavily to the mindsets of many, if not most, of our assassins (like Giuseppe Zangara, who shot at FDR but killed Chicago's mayor instead), and sometimes directly motivated their murderous impulses (as in the case of Leon Czologosz, an anarchist whose assassination of President McKinley was basically a copycat killing).

But Weidman never really ponders the differing political contexts that drove his characters to murder; his is a Broadway baby's view of American history - and of course that's his audience's view, too.  And to be fair, his show-biz tunnel vision works fairly well for a few of his killers, such as the vicious but inept "Squeaky" Fromme and Sara Jane Moore, for whom Weidman devises blackly comic vignettes that play like a nasty sitcom-on-acid.  But elsewhere we can feel the author simply grinding his wheels, because he has no real purchase on the historical record.

The astral-assassin plane reaches out to Lee Harvey Oswald in Assassins.

It's even hard to argue that an obsession with celebrity is driving current threats against our President (racism, disguised or admitted, is just too obviously a factor here). But Weidman's concept does resonate in a different way - it would probably be perfect for a show about the many mass murderers of the millennium. You know, the Columbine wannabes - the men (they're always men, and usually white ones) who after stockpiling weapons for years, suddenly spray a matinee of Batman with round after round from an Uzi - and who more often than not, after the climactic scene of the demented movie they're directing in their heads, turn their guns on themselves.

This is actually why Assassins won't die - not because it's an artistic success on its own terms, but because it indirectly taps our fears about this parallel American phenomenon: the lone gunman who might be waiting for any of us at the mall or the movies. And the New Rep production was most gripping when it resonated with that unspoken context - as when Benjamin Evett, as the musical's "Proprietor" (here styled as Uncle Sam by way of Kander & Ebb) began handing out pistols to the damaged and deranged like so much Halloween candy.

And thankfully throughout the production there were performances skillful enough to distract us from the gaps in the material itself.  Evett handled himself well (although vocally he was more stretched by Sondheim's demands than he was by those of Camelot), and Mark Linehan made a convincingly stentorian madman of John Wilkes Booth; there were also compelling cameos from Harrison Bryan and Peter S. Adams as Giuseppe Zangara and Samuel Byck (would-be killers of FDR and Nixon, respectively), and Brad Daniel Peloquin as an insanely fey Charles Guiteau (the assassin of President Garfield). Even more intriguing was newcomer Evan Gambardella's spooky turn as Lee Harvey Oswald - this young performer was able to hold us through the worst of Weidman's hooey. But I was perhaps most taken with Paula Langton's Sara Jane Moore and McCaela Donovan's "Squeaky" Fromme.  Langton gave Moore the right scarily ditzy spin, but Donovan dug deeper - her "Squeaky" came from a truly desolate place, and her duet with John Hinckley (the effective Patrick Varner) was probably the high point of the show (partly because "Unworthy of Your Love" is Sondheim's strongest contribution to one of his lesser scores).

I also can't fault the evocative design, costumes and lighting.  I only wish I could have recommended the show itself!  Sigh.  I'm afraid in the end Assassins only makes me long for the day when our theatre can directly address the pressing issues of the moment. And I admit I'm also afraid that day may never come.  So something tells me another production of Assassins can't be far off . . .