Friday, March 12, 2010

Sophie's choice

Craig Mathers, Anne Gottlieb, and Marianna Bassham try to breathe life into Not Enough Air.

Watching Becky Shaw last night at the Huntington, I was struck by how playwright Gina Gionfriddo kept tossing little poisoned darts in the direction of the feminine victimization fetishes taught at Brown University (and really the entire academy). Would she could have also taken aim at Not Enough Air (through Sunday at the Nora Theatre Company), the disjointed update of Sophie Treadwell's Machinal that the critics did hand-springs for, but which left me (and the audience I saw it with) pretty cold.

Indeed, playwright Masha Obolensky (who's at Northeastern, not Brown, but what's the difference) could crib more than a few notes from Gionfriddo - that is, if she wants to really get at what she's pretending she's interested in: the dangerous psychological material that the notorious Ruth Snyder murder trial dredged up for playwright/reporter Treadwell.

That's right - Not Enough Air is a play about writing a play, which I guess is its excuse for being kind of a conceptual mess. But that's probably what comes of caring more about your theatrical effects (none of them particularly new) than you do about your characters. Treadwell's Machinal, though rarely produced today, made a Broadway hit out of the Snyder murder trial by turning it into an expressionist meditation on the entrapment of women in marriage and, you know, society and stuff. Thus Not Enough Air aims to be a post-expressionist (or post-meta-expressionist) meditation on an entrapped woman writing about the entrapment of women. Or something like that.

The problem, of course, is that Ruth Snyder (at left) wasn't really trapped, and neither was Sophie Treadwell. Indeed, it's telling that Ruth's murder of her husband (with the help of the lover she browbeat into the job) inspired not just Machinal but also James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. These different takes on the basic facts operate like opposed stars: to Treadwell, Snyder was a victim of a masculine power structure machine-like in its oppression of women ("machinal" is French for "mechanical" or "automatic"). To Cain, she was a brilliant, diabolical seductress. Both are essentially paranoid (or maybe hysterical) extrapolations of an almost amusingly tawdry murder case. The real Ruth Snyder was rather obviously neither a crushed violet nor a Venus flytrap; she was, instead, cruel, ruthless, and rather stupid. (Her hilarious missteps and inadvertent confessions basically sealed her and her lover's fates.)

This doesn't mean, of course, that Treadwell's obsession with her isn't interesting as a dramatic subject; the trouble is that Obolensky doesn't know how to dramatize said subject. Instead for about an hour we get poor Anne Gottlieb (as Treadwell) supposedly getting sucked into the Snyder case, but really just wandering through a gauntlet of popping flash bulbs, loud sound effects, nasty phalanxes of company men, and shadowy, noirish tableaux. We get the sense that we're supposed to be saying to ourselves "OMG! IT'S LIKE A MACHINE!" over and over again, but we soon get really tired of saying that and begin to wonder when the actual play is going to start.

To be fair, something dramatic does get started in the second act, when Obolensky trains her sights on Treadwell's efforts to conjure her own characterization of Snyder in the play-within-the-play. Briefly, something seems to be at stake for the characters, at least in the wary, menacing dance between Gottlieb and the ever-terrific Marianna Bassham as Snyder's fictional double. But the excitement these talented actresses generate when left alone together soon dissipates. Obolensky seems to want to convey that by opening up the Pandora's box of her repressed feelings about the "trapped" murderess, Treadwell destroyed her open, quasi-bohemian relationship with fellow journalist George Stillwell (the wasted Craig Mathers). This is a promising idea, but soon we feel ourselves filling in all the dramatic blanks for Obolensky on this score; the playwright simply can't seem to get inside Treadwell's relationship (or give poor Stillwell much of a characterization). And at any rate, Machinal didn't exactly turn Treadwell into a great artist (the rest of her oeuvre is hackwork); so we wonder if, in the end, losing whatever she had with Stillwell was worth that one success. Not that Obolensky would ever go there; instead, we're soon back to political stick figures, scenic out-takes from Chicago, and meta-theatrical constructs. Every now and then, I hoped the cast might just break into a chorus of "He Had It Comin'," but no such luck. What was most touching about the production, in fact, was charting its rise and fall on poor Anne Gottlieb's face: first she looked lost, then thrilled to be playing against Bassham, then lost again. This fine actress deserves better.

Oh, well. Needless to say, director Melia Bensnussen, who's made a specialty out of pounding a politically-correct template down onto Shakespeare, was pretty much indifferent to whatever emotional connections Obolensky hints at between men and women. Instead, as is her wont, Bensnussen emphasizes just about everything that's dramatically weak (but politically au courant) about Not Enough Air. The supporting cast - a roster of Boston's best actors - dash about with more than enough energy to put over the director's puppet show, but it's kind of a lost cause. David Remedios's sound design deserves praise, and John Malinowski certainly gives the lighting grid a workout. Beyond that, though, there's really not enough drama in Not Enough Air.