In her review of Don DeLillo's Love-Lies-Bleeding, the Boston Globe's Louise Kennedy makes the following rather oblique statement:
On the smaller of two stages at Boston Playwrights' Theatre, a young fringe company is presenting the regional premiere of Don DeLillo's "Love-Lies-Bleeding" . . . This is a strange commentary on the state of our large local theater companies, if you consider that two earlier DeLillo plays were commissioned and premiered by the American Repertory Theatre.
A "strange commentary," indeed. One wonders why Kennedy can't simply say aloud what I've been saying for some time: Boston's major theatres are failing to bring us the news from our playwrights. The A.R.T. continues to pretend that directors are more important than writers, while the Huntington has become focused on developing talents in-house - which means, unfortunately, that said talents are often genuine but minor. Meanwhile, we've had to turn to the Lyric Stage to see Albee's The Goat, Boston Theatreworks to see Kushner's Homebody/Kabul, Zeitgeist Stage to see The Kentucky Cycle, and Company One to see Mr. Marmalade. I know I'm the meme engine around here, but isn't it time for even the cautious Louise Kennedy and Carolyn Clay to risk pointing out that this situation is precisely backwards? Even though two major academic institutions have standing theatre companies here, we're offered the boldest new theatre essentially below the mainstream radar, on the down-low, as it were. In a way, of course, this situation is a bonanza for small theatres, which can pick from the latest in challenging texts. On the other hand, it's a little frustrating for the rest of us, since our smaller theatres often don't have the resources to fully realize these demanding visions.
Brett Marks, Eliza Lay and W. Kirk Avery in Love-Lies-Bleeding.
And that's the case, I'm afraid, with Love-Lies-Bleeding, a laudable attempt by Way Theatre Artists at bringing off an intriguing, but flawed, experiment from DeLillo. The piece is, on its surface, a contemplation of euthanasia and its moral paradoxes, in which Alex, an aging, once-vital artist "locked in," as the doctors say, by two successive strokes, mutely waits - and perhaps listens - as his stump of an "extended family" circles his helpless body with a life-ending load of morphine.
But DeLillo is not solely interested in concocting some high-end counterpoint to Whose Life Is It Anyway? As usual, he's most concerned with the limits of knowledge, and the meaning of action within those limits. In such epics as Libra, White Noise, and Underworld, the interstices he reveals in American culture hint at conspiracy and unknown threat - in Love-Lies-Bleeding, by way of contrast, the threat circling the "hero" isn't fraught with epistemological doubt, but his actual current state is. So DeLillo proceeds to break his play up into allusive fragments - fragments which often frustrate any through-line reading, and are intended to keep us pondering precisely what we know about this moral dilemma and what we can know.
But the Way Theatre production, under the direction of Greg Maraio, sticks with a naturalistic approach throughout, so the constant narrative dislocations seem like shocks to the play's system rather than a positive structural element. To be fair to Maraio, DeLillo's structure is hardly a triumph - he slides uneasily out of philosophical speculation and into somewhat-wooden melodrama, so Maraio's approach is at least half-right. Still, some sense of alienated distance from the appearance of what's going on is clearly called for, but never delivered (or even attempted).
Despite these failings, there are at least two performances to savor here. Eliza Lay, though not as commanding as she was in The Eight, is still generally convincing as the wife of the stricken Alex, and delivers a moving, if conflicted, eulogy near the play's end. Jeff Gill, however, is the stand-out as the maverick artist (played poignantly in extremis by W. Kirk Avery), conveying an appealing energy in the character's younger days as well as a thoughtful, utterly unsentimental evocation of his travails after his first stroke. What's more, Gill alone seems to understand DeLillo's buried themes. Whether he's pondering hollowing out a cavern in a mountain to hold his art (a rather obvious metaphor for his own later state), or simply speculating on the identity of a remembered face, Gill poignantly illuminates the doubt that permeates the play. After all, perhaps Alex really has disintegrated within his skull (Gill's final moments hint that may be the case). Perhaps the family has hastened his death - but then again perhaps they haven't (questions of human efficacy haunt DeLillo). Perhaps Alex's art-filled cavern would mean immortality - but perhaps it would mean absurdity. And perhaps the Way Theatre production misses this piercing edge of ambiguity, but there's no doubt they should be applauded for staging Don DeLillo's latest.