Friday, January 23, 2009

Family plot

Father and son go mano-a-mano in A View of the Harbor.

I'm confused. Why are local critics hating on A View of the Harbor at the Merrimack? Louise Kennedy in the Globe writes that "A View of the Harbor has found a new formula for depression . . . it feels more like a sitcom than a play, and a third-rate sitcom at that." Okay - having all but killed off the North Shore Music Theatre, Kennedy seems to now have the Merrimack in her sights - all the better, apparently, to close as many theatres as she can before she loses her job, too. But from her review you'd never guess how engaging the production is, or how much the audience I attended it with seemed to enjoy it.

I'm not arguing, btw, that A View of the Harbor is flawless - indeed, far from it: it's flawed. Playwright Richard Dresser is confidently, but superficially, skilled, and as a result somewhat glib; he's in love with the tight, ironic reversals we expect from journalism, not drama, and he skates over transitions he should take time to develop. Still, his juxtapositions are amusing and suggestive, his skepticism toward everyone and everything provides for some genuine wit, as opposed to just "laughs," and the thrust-and-parry of his writing sometimes conjures a scary sense of moral dislocation. At its best, A View of the Harbor plays like a cross between Heartbreak House and Buried Child - not bad for a new play and a young playwright, I'd say.

Or, you could argue that it plays like a cross between Heartbreak House, Buried Child, and Everybody Loves Raymond. Certainly Dresser studs his play with one-liners that occasionally play like sitcom fodder. Still, his wisecracks send home pointed jokes about class in America, or how class feeling aligns with family feeling (taboo topics on sitcoms), so I was prone to forgive him this weakness. The trouble is, the background rhythm of sitcom "beats" forces his hand when it comes to the deeper issues he raises. He quickly shuffles his characters from one allegiance to another, and doesn't allow himself the freedom to really explore the darker shadows his writing casts. I have a feeling, though, that if he ever does dare to break this commercial template, he might just have a great play in him.

Certainly he's already written an amusing one. A View of the Harbor casts its jaundiced eye on the way the rich respond to the moral problem of being rich: privileged Paige has fallen hard for working class hero Nick, who slaves away in the local munitions factory she opposes; through him she gets the "authenticity" she craves, plus the cozy feeling she's rebelling against her own class. But when Paige follows Nick home after his father's medical collapse, she discovers that nothing about him is as it seems: not his class, not his money, not even his name. "Nick" is actually "Edward," and "a Townsend" - i.e., the scion of the family that once owned the munitions factory in which he toils, but now marinates in martinis, money, and emotional recrimination in its Addams-family-style redoubt on the shores of Maine. Most shocking of all, Nick is actually richer than Paige.

So what's an uppercrust liberal to do? The re-alignment of Paige's affections, and her return to the cold, but at least honestly self-interested, calculations of her class-bound core, become the spine of Presser's play - although he takes interesting little side-tours into the family's WASP-y dysfunction (of which their mean-spirited "poverty" is but one classic manifestation). Alas, these trips are generally too abbreviated - we want to learn more, for instance, about the actual Nick, Edward's dead brother, who fell (or jumped) off the cliff before the family home. Likewise Edward's emotionally paralyzed sister - who's so beaten-down Paige at first takes her for his mother - is intriguing but under-developed (her final illusions are a particular mystery, given her sharp perceptions early on). And how does Paige herself get around the supposed war-industry horrors behind the family fortune? Right now the play, like the Townsends, is held together by Dresser's conception of its central patriarch, on whose growling, cruelly capitalist stance the playwright has the best bead, perhaps because it doesn't change; it's the reconfiguration of the other characters around this central pillar that are currently giving him trouble.

Clearly delineating this, of course, would take time, which is what Dresser denies himself (the Merrimack does the play sans intermission). In a word, the playwright should revise and expand - and generally take a longer View of the Harbor. In the meantime, however, there are four strong performances to savor up at the Merrimack. Anderson Matthews makes a roaring caricature of his pickled patriarch - still, this is a caricature worthy of Daumier, and it's easy to see why Stephanie Fieger's self-serious Paige (at left) might find his flinty self-denial attractive (and after all, is his "poverty," with its hidden agenda of power, so very different from her own "self-denial"?). Meanwhile Kyle Fabel makes Nick both likable and slightly pathetic, and Andrea Cirie brings a waspish, sullen attack to the role of his downtrodden sister - although both, I'd argue, are left hanging in the final scene by the playwright. The gray ghost of a seaside Victorian which frames both their action and in-action is the work of the skillful Richard Wadsworth Chambers, while director Charles Towers, as is his wont, keeps things in crisp structural shape throughout. This director seems essentially drawn to rhetorical modes - his specialty is a kind of taut verbal thread strung over an abyss; in Albee, or even Hare, this approach works beautifully, because that deep darkness is central to the playwright's design. In Dresser, the abyss is there, too - only the playwright tries to distract us from it; hence the occasional sitcomminess of this production. But it occurs to me that Towers's skills might best be set off by Shaw, or even Ibsen - two playwrights rarely seen in Boston of late. Could they, perhaps, surface at the Merrimack sometime soon? If enough people ignore Louise Kennedy, maybe so.

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