Thursday, November 6, 2014

Poems by post, and love at a distance

I can't decide who's cuter, can you?

Audiences seem to like the Lyric Stage's Dear Elizabeth, the love letter from Sarah Ruhl to Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell - perhaps because Ruhl's script is based entirely on these great American poets' own letters to each other (some of which were love letters themselves).

And honestly, I can't really blame folks for falling for this rather bad play (it's by Sarah Ruhl, after all) - because at least it's a nice bad play. The dialogue is witty and disarmingly civilized, for instance, because it's all by Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, and they were indeed great writers (even of prose). And the situations hinted at, dodged, or warily declared in their exchanges are all poignantly adult. So who wouldn't want to spend an hour or two with these two, as they swap war stories, dish on other literary greats, and every so often bare their broken hearts?

So does it really matter if it's a bad play, if it's also (by default) a literate and beguiling one? Well, maybe not - until you ponder how Ruhl has squandered a truly golden opportunity. I mean the correspondence between Bishop and Lowell lasted thirty years - and ran to over eight hundred pages! They were often in near-constant contact, and considered in their conversation more than one turning point in American letters. In short, their epistles are a treasure trove of material.

But Ruhl isn't really interested in any of that.  She's only interested in what she's always interested in - how cute can she possibly make her pen pals, and the poignant distance between them?  How often can she make us say, "Awww . . .", or blink back a tear? I know, I know, winsome distance is her brand, so again - can you really blame her?  I mean that MacArthur prize money won't last forever!

But it's fair to note, I think, that we get a pantload of winsome shit in Dear Elizabeth. Little lanterns on strings, and origami boats, and long-distance toasts - Ruhl seems to be drawing little hearts and stars all over this virtual poetry journal in her patented daydreaming-college-girl style. Of course if you're the type that can't wait to clap for Tinkerbell in Peter Pan, you'll adore all this. And to be fair, Ruhl sometimes did make even me heave a heavy sigh. There's one particularly sweet image, for instance, in which Lowell and Bishop conjure a memory of a past seaside sojourn by opening up a little suitcase - and there's a miniature model of the Maine coast inside! Isn't that adorable?? (All together now: "Awwwww . . . .")

So I suppose Ruhl's mise-en-scène never quite cloys, but when you ponder all the stuff the playwright has left out of her epistolary opus, you begin to yearn for something more than sentimental grace notes.  For despite all the emotional meat on the bones of these missives, Dear Elizabeth is almost skeletal - indeed, if you don't know the back story of these two, you might be slightly lost throughout the play.  Of course not all that much of their mutually difficult lives is directly stated in their letters - but isn't that the theatrical challenge of a piece like this, to suggest the context behind all the gingerly orchestrated semaphore?

By the sea with Bob and Liz.  Photos: Mark S. Howard.

And to be blunt - where is the poetry? Much of the correspondence between these two was about their work, but we only get a small sample of Bishop's greatest hits ("The Fish," "One Art," "North Haven") and really nothing from Lowell at all (probably because the broken ruin evident in his voice would have overturned Ruhl's fangirl conceits). There is one sudden tirade from Bishop over Lowell's distortions in his confessional poem "The Dolphin" that's dramatically exciting - but it's torn from any and all context, as Ruhl has never managed to explore why the confessional style was so fraught for both poets.

It may not help that A. Nora Long's diverting but superficial production punches up the whimsy of the script and generally deep-sixes the letters' buried pain. Bishop was an alcoholic; Lowell was an alcoholic and a manic depressive. Bishop was elusive, prickly, and difficult; Lowell was often, to put it simply, an untrustworthy cad. Thus although their letters constantly bemoan the miles between them, it's not hard to divine why they might have kept their distance - much less why Bishop, a closeted lesbian for much of her life (yeah, sorry, that's what she was) kept the needy Lowell at arm's length, given his many sodden declarations of infatuation.

Yet despite all this, the talented Laura Latreille manages to get somewhere as Bishop - her work is vague (it almost has to be) but at least you can feel her trying to get at the life beneath the letters.  But alas, as Lowell, Ed Hoopman seems content to coast on his sonorous voice and cordial charm; indeed, when one of his epistles suddenly discusses psychiatric treatment at McLean's, we can't believe he was ever there.

Oh, well! At least Latreille could count on the support of some fine production design.  Shelly Barish's versatile set did charm, and Garrett Herzig's projections were always evocative. Ruhl may have kicked the poetry out of her play - for whatever reason - but often these designers seemed determined to sneak it back in.

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