Monday, April 30, 2012

The Play from Tedium

Signature Theatre's production of Edward Albee's The Lady from Dubuque demonstrates the company's mandate - representing the range of a playwright's work.

This 1978 play was written in the years between two great plays - Seascape (1974) and Three Tall Women (1991), both Pulitzer Prize winners. Not that Albee was exactly idle during these years; there were five other plays, but none of them reached the heights of Seascape or Women, or earlier work like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962).

Dubuque seems to start off in Virginia Woolf territory, only it's three couples instead of two having a late-night drink-up and cage match. Long-legged, elegant Jo (Laila Robins) is mistress of the caustic quip and launches zingers from an Eames chair as she sizes up the weaknesses of the others. Husband Sam (Michael Hayden) seems to be playing a role as genial host and master of the suburban house.

Pugnacious Fred (C.J. Wilson) is a bully with a much-younger girlfriend Carol (Tricia Paoluccio) who is apparently a hapless airhead. Conventional Edgar (Thomas Jay Ryan) accompanies hand-wringing, neurotic doormat Lucinda (Catherine Curtin). 

Again, like Woolf, there is games-playing going on. As the curtain rises, Sam is starting "Twenty Questions" with the fraught query, "Who am I?" But the apparently sociable evening immediately heads off the rails as Jo addresses the audience with the frank admission that she is dying. Since the atmosphere is one of games-playing, one has some doubt at first as to whether she actually is dying.

As the evening progresses, a second game takes place when Carol, who's not as clueless as she first seems, and Sam pretend he assaulted her in another room - but it's just a put-on to get a reaction out of the others. Pretty soon, Jo leaves no doubt that she is dying, doubled up and screaming in pain.

In the second act, the morning after, Sam descends the winding stair of John Arnone's gorgeous set to find yet another couple in his living room - the elegant, white-haired Elizabeth (Jane Alexander) and Oscar (Peter Francis James). Sam opens the act with the question, "Who are you?"

They are Death, of course, come to take Jo and you can see it coming a mile away. With not much surprise left in the text and much screaming from the dying Jo and several of the other characters, the play visits the house of tedium. Albee's nihilistic view sees no particular peace in death, certainly no religious victory, and not much wisdom. So what is left? "Nothing is retained. Nothing," Oscar says. "There is only one thing that matters: Who am I?" Sam says.

All right, if finding truth in identity is what matters, then what has Jo found? Not much but witty, savage assaults on the existential inevitable. While Virginia Woolf inhabits equally bleak territory, wondering how the characters in that play are going to live proves to be more interesting than considering how one in Dubuque is going to die. Nevertheless, seeing this play provides a deeper understanding of this great writer's body of work. 

Monday, April 9, 2012

Vulnerable boats against the current

Scott Shepherd as the reader in Gatz - and Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby
"In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since." -- "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." Those are the first and last sentences of The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald's deathless 1925 novel about money and desire and the dark side of America's "pursuit of happiness."

They are also the first and last lines of Gatz, a "staged reading" unlike any I have ever seen. Over the course of eight hours -- 2 pm to 10 pm, with two short intermissions and a dinner break -- the entire 49,000-word text of the novel is read aloud, and it pushes the bounds of theater by making us fall in love with prose.

New York City's 21-year-old Elevator Repair Service, which specializes in unusual theater, approaches the drama of the book by not dramatizing it - in other words, by not creating a play out of the plot.

Director and company founder John Collins realizes that the narration of the story by the character Nick Carraway and Fitzgerald's ravishing prose are the drama. But this is three-dimensional theater and visual must be served.

So the glamorous world of Gatsby's Long Island mansions, "blue lawns," white flannels and champagne parties takes place - most improbably - in a shabby office in an unidentified downtown. Time? Apparently the 90s, judging from the clunky cordless phones and computers.

One of the beaten-down workers (Scott Shepherd) can't get his computer to work and it's taken away. Goofing off, he slides a book out of a Rolodex case and begins to read. "In my younger and more vulnerable years ..."

As Fitzgerald's classic tale of romantic obsession unfolds, the workers take the parts: brutal philandering Tom Buchanan, (Gary Wilmes, recently so effective in Chinglish - see blog post here) feckless wife Daisy (Victoria Vazquez), jaunty friend Jordan Baker (Susie Sokol) and intense Myrtle Wilson (Laurena Allan).

As Carraway, Shepherd (also, amazingly, appearing in Blood Knot further uptown at Signature Theatre) mostly reads the text with a medium-weight voice and a touch of the Midwest. It's a most attractive voice to listen to, not flamboyant, but very clear and possessed of a distinct though modest personality.

Apart from Shepherd, the most effective cast member for me was Jim Fletcher as Jay Gatsby, deep of voice and dangerous of manner. The cast also has a couple of unusual participants: Gatsby's father, who appears toward the end, bewildered by his son's death, is played very effectively by Dr. Ross Fletcher, chief of staff of Washington D.C.'s VA Medical Center. The playbill says he has played the role since 2005.

Sokol is a second-grade teacher at a school in Brooklyn. For me, Vazquez was miscast as Daisy. A tall, elegant woman with dark hair, she hardly embodies Daisy's fragility.

The actors' movements are also subtly deliberate and graceful, so the swirl of 1920s party dresses somehow both meshes and contrasts with a woman carrying a stack of papers through an office.

Sometimes the emphasis on the visual distracts from such sentences as this: "The wind had blown off, leaving a loud bright night with wings beating in the trees and a persistent organ sound as the full bellows of the earth blew the frogs full of life."

One scene in particular, a drunken party in a New York hotel room attended by Carraway, Tom Buchanan and his lover Myrtle, isn't enhanced by the characters/office workers tossing papers into the air, symbolizing the chaos of the moment. It smacks of an actorly exercise.    

These are small points, however. The day married a book I've loved for more than three decades and my great love of theater and gave me a single masterpiece.