Monday, August 3, 2009
Wendie Malick and Betty Gilpin in another Noah Haidle opus that hasn't come to term.
Last summer marked Nicholas Martin's first season as Artistic Director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival, and it proved a brilliant one (anchored by his sparkling Huntington production of She Loves Me). So perhaps it's understandable that his sophomore year should have been marked by a slump, according to many critics; maybe there was nowhere to go but down, at least in the short term. Still, I was keeping my hopes up as I ventured west to catch both What is the Cause of Thunder?, Noah Haidle's latest, and a revival of George Kelly's unfairly-forgotten comedy of theatrical manners, The Torch-Bearers.
Unfortunately, however, I discovered the negative reviews have been pretty accurate - and sometimes very succinct: an audience member summed up What is the Cause of Thunder? by wondering "What is the cause of this blunder?" in the lobby after the show. And I suppose the answer is, in a word, Martin's ongoing sponsorship of Haidle (he produced the disappointing Persephone at the Huntington two years ago, and before being struck by a stroke last fall - from which he has recovered - he was helming Haidle's Saturn Returns at Lincoln Center). Now I understand young playwrights need ongoing support, even through the inevitable misstep - thus Haidle's been getting a whole lotta love from the theatre community since the success of Mr. Marmalade some years ago (the lionized Bartlett Sher wrapped up Saturn Returns when Martin fell ill).
But Haidle hasn't returned the love with deeper, better-crafted plays. Indeed, so far he hasn't matched his first success, Mr. Marmalade, which may have been effective and original, but was hardly a masterpiece - thus, the thinking went, with attention and support from the literary departments of major theatres, and more money behind his productions, he might deliver something like a major work. But things haven't turned out that way - Haidle's scripts have instead been growing self-consciously pretentious in conception yet hopelessly slack in execution; What is the Cause of Thunder?, like Persephone before it, is a rambling tease derived from an interesting idea that might, with luck, have formed the basis of a surreally satiric one-act.
To be fair, that interesting idea does look like fun at first: we meet self-involved soap actress Ada (Wendie Malick, of TV's Just Shoot Me) as she's interrupted from prayer by a troubled nun who lets us know in no short order that the zoo animals have escaped, the priests have been fondling "the wee ones" (even Blind Thomas!), and God himself has died, His last words being "What did I do?" - a neat little book-end to Christ's penultimate lines on the cross. Immediately the stage is set for a smart Catholic comedy along the lines of Christopher Durang (another Martin favorite, btw), and at first Haidle seems to know exactly what he's doing. His ideas are hardly new, but they're sturdy - they're a skewed update of the realizations of undergraduates everywhere - and we sense his soap-opera conceit could prove fertile dramatic ground for the kind of horror-comedy that Christian theology always devolves into onstage. For as Ada herself points out, soap opera may revel in the wackiest evil imaginable, and be obsessed with sin, suffering, and redemption, but its victims always live on to suffer another day, and its villains are always forgiven: unlike in real life, nobody ever dies on a soap.
But then Haidle starts up with Ada's homelife, and we sense a growing lack of dramatic focus fueled by structural meta-shenanigans. Ada's pregnant daughter Ophelia - and indeed everyone else in her life, as well as on the soap - is played by the same actress (the versatile and resourceful Betty Gilpin), and her living room looks slightly surreal, as if it might be - wait for it - a mental, rather than physical, construct. Meanwhile Ophelia complains that Ada's always confusing her with her TV daughters, good and evil twins Bathsheba (who's prone to quoting Hamlet) and Harper (who tends to slip in and out of a coma). And just in case we've missed the point, she also sighs that "everyone thinks I'm a metaphor."
Indeed we do. That palindromic first name for our leading lady also raises a symbolic red flag - along with memories of the back-and-forth structure of Nabokov's Ada, which Haidle loosely apes. Clearly Ada's soap and her life are just two sides of an ongoing psychological complex, that kicks into high gear when management decides that yes, they're going to kill her off on the soap. But there's so much other cultural flotsam in this stew - a brief summary would include not only King Lear (the source of the title phrase), Hamlet and Ada but also Oedipus Rex and The Killing of Sister George - that we soon lose track of any coherent symbolic matrix or throughline, and so does Haidle. Does the "thunder" of the title represent God's death, or Ada's death, or just "death" - or perhaps birth? (Haidle tacks that one on at the last minute, when Ophelia's water breaks, onstage.) We can't tell, and we don't care - and even though Malick and Gilpin keep us laughing, intermittently, we know all the protacted goings-on are just another half-baked metaphor for our collective denial of both physical and moral reality, or something like that.
Which, pardon me, is hardly an original hook for a new play. Indeed, the problem with recent Haidle is that he becomes so involved in half-working out his fanciful paradoxes and parallel universes that he doesn't attend to the one thing we really care about - a tightly crafted, novel structure to convey his fun-but-familiar themes. What is the Cause of Thunder? plays like a rough draft, and of course it's the third Haidle play to surface in two years - so maybe it's time to hold off on the high production values evidenced here (the convolutions of Alexander Dodge's endlessly-morphing set hold us more than the writing does). When Haidle has actually finished another script - say, maybe two years from now - he may deserve another high-profile production. But right now, what I'd tell Noah is "Three strikes and you're out."
Next: a Torch-Bearers that sometimes shines, but more often flickers.