Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Acid dreams

Mrs. Barker (Kelly Rauch ) gets comfy in The American Dream.

It seems in Boston these days you have to go off the grid to find a theatre willing to tackle plays of real intellectual challenge. Our larger houses are currently diddling with the likes of Rock 'n' Roll or The Santaland Diaries, so it's comforting to see that companies on the fringe are still risking their rent checks on truly edgy (if older) material like Albee's The American Dream and Pinter's One for the Road, presented through this weekend by Theatre on Fire at the Charlestown Working Theater.

And if this double bill isn't quite a dream come true, Theatre on Fire's effort is still a provocative and engrossing take on two plays that haven't lost their power to trouble (and even shock) the conscience. Indeed, what's interesting about this twofer is how even though you couldn't call them cutting-edge (there's nothing formally new in the Pinter, and the Albee has already inspired a thousand skits on Saturday Night Live), they nevertheless still cut deep. Not much has really changed, it would seem, in our alienated national psyche since the 1961 premiere of Dream. And of course torture, the topic of One for the Road, never really took root in American soil until the Bush administration (and if you're confident the incoming president is going to change all that, you may want to think twice).

It is, of course, this rise in American sadism that provides a rough correspondence between Dream and Road - Albee reveals the essential emptiness of American life, and Pinter muses on what would eventually fill that vacuum. Still, the two operate in very different modes, and Theatre on Fire proves most at home with the bald satire of Dream. Albee described his play as ""an examination of the American Scene, an attack on the substitution of artificial for real values in our society, a condemnation of complacency, cruelty, emasculation, and vacuity; it is a stand against the fiction that everything in this slipping land of ours is peachy-keen." And all that's pretty relevant today - American life still isn't peachy-keen, and more than ever consists of ritualized seduction, competitive consumption and violence, disguised by mores and "morals" that still ring hilariously hollow.

Thus "Mommy" and "Daddy" in The American Dream are first seen in an absurdist theatrical space borrowed from Ionesco, sunnily enjoying their own vapid contentment; a hot topic is the difference between the colors "beige" and "wheat" (although in the witty set design, most everything, including the characters, is white). They're soon joined by an even more aggressively self-satisfied neighbor, Mrs. Barker, the president of the local ladies' club, who's more than happy to strip off her clothes (above) if she's asked politely. There's only one fly in all this honeyed ointment - the cantankerous, truth-telling Grandma, whom Mommy and Daddy are hoping to bundle off with "the Van Man." But it isn't long before Albee is grafting these caricatures onto his own life story - Mommy and Daddy once had a secret adopted son (Albee was just such a child), whom they found unsatisfactory as a product, and so essentially tortured to death. But his replacement is just over the horizon - the hunk whom Grandma immediately recognizes as "the American Dream": handsome, hot, eager to please, and as empty as his admirers. The play ends on an upbeat note (of sorts), with Grandma's escape, and everything even dreamier at home than it ever was before.

Theatre on Fire's Artistic Director Darren Evans generally knew how to keep Albee's bitter laughs coming, although he may have pitched this dystopic vision at slightly too high and arch an angle (Mommy in particular, I think, given the tales surrounding Albee's adoptive mother, should be a crueller force to be reckoned with). Still, within those limits, there was smartly poised work here from Christine Power as Mommy and Kelly Rauch as Mrs. Barker, while Ann Carpenter got in her hearty licks as Grandma. I had more doubts, however, about Terrence P. Haddad's perversely blank American Dream; this blatant symbol (in a playpen of blatant symbols) should still operate as something of a character, sniffing out the opportunities in his new environment, and only slowly revealing that beneath his Marlboro Man exterior, there's no "there" there. But Mr. Haddad played the role as a void from the get-go, which I think subtly undercut Albee's climax.

Similar interpretive problems sometimes dogged the more problematic One for the Road. The piece, written as a cri de coeur against American-sponsored torture in the developing world, depends on a charismatic, densely-layered performance in the central role of "Nicolas," the cultured torturer toying between sessions with his abused victims (Pinter took the part himself on several occasions, to great acclaim). But in this admittedly challenging role, the talented Jeff Gill (at left, with Craig Houk) connects with the material only intermittently, perhaps due to the way director Evans has styled the piece.

Hard as it may to believe, One for the Road, like all Pinter, is a veiled power game, even if torture victims would seem at first blush to be utterly powerless. But Pinter's great insight is that within the consciousness of the torturer, who has, of course, unleashed the unspeakable within himself, they have accrued a moral power as great as his own cruelty, and thus pose a terrible psychological challenge. Evans (and Gill), however, concentrate on the superficial horrors of Pinter's exchanges - through which we glean hints of what, exactly, has been done to chief victim "Victor" and his family. This certainly sends shivers up and down the audience's collective spine, but the warped interior of "Nicolas," with its self-righteous core ("I'm making the world clean for God!" he insists) streaked with eroticism and sudden veins of panic, remains largely unlimned. Likewise, Craig Houk, while essaying Victor's terror and abused psyche expertly, never quite captures the victim's growing attempts to understand, and even battle, his captor. This gap is understandable, perhaps, but really too bad - it would have been nice to pair an American dream with an American mirror.

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