By Alexis Soloski
By Molly Grogan
By R. C. Baker
By Christian Viveros-Fauné
By Alexis Soloski
By Alexis Soloski
By Lilly Lampe
In the old days, Broadway-goers called them "nice little plays" tidy, sequential, small-scale items about a crisis in the life of one little group. The matinee ladies adored them; men often felt out of place at them. Terence Rattigan, who wrote several of the best British examples, named their typical spectator "Aunt Edna," and said he created all his plays with her in mind.
Condescending as this description may seem, nice little plays weren't necessarily stupid or trivial. At their best they could be polished, pungent, even witty. Though rarely reaching out to the real world, they could stir up waves that lapped gently at the feet of its more urgent issues. Catching or, heaven forbid, shaping the spirit of their time was beyond them; at best they could reflect it. Their successors, in an exploded world where niceness and littleness are no longer virtues, still strive to do as much, with mixed success. More interesting than the latest generation of less nice little plays is the way their once surefire formulas have been pulled and stretched to seem contemporary. What used to be easy can't be, now, without sliding into arrant predictability, but the ease was the point, the sugar that made the dramatic pill go down; today's complications only make it stick in the audience's craw. Wolf Lullaby at least sticks there interestingly. The Australian writer Hilary Bell's little play isn't so nice to begin with, dealing as it does with a neglected child who murders to gain attention. In the past, its topic would have been on the shadow line of matinee taste, meat for a slightly disreputable thriller like the camp classic The Bad Seed. (About which Eric Bentley wrote, with inimitable cogency, "The homicidal child is a traditional source of quiet fun.") Its tidy ending would have been cushioned with fake-serious guff about Freud and heredity. But we know too much for that, nowadays. With the news full of kids slaughtering kids, little Rhoda Penmark's carefully contrived steps into serial murder are no longer a hoot.
Accordingly, Bell gives us a story squeezed dry and sliced thin. The scene, unexotic yet remote even for Australians, is a drab industrial town in Tasmania. Mum and Dad, separated and both working, hardly have time for nine-year-old Lizzie. Worse, neither knows how to convey affection in terms that transcend the shopping mall; materialism's their life. They're unequipped to interpret Lizzie's wolfish nightmares, or spot the cries for help in her drawings. (When Mary McCann, as Lizzie's mum, casually crumples one of these, it's the show's most heartrending moment.) On her way to the murder of a two-year-old, Lizzie shoplifts, and kills a neighbor's pet bird; Mum's too busy defending her from the local police sergeant to ponder what drives her to crime.
The Old Settler
By John Henry Redwood
354 West 45th Street
Getting and Spending
By Michael J. Chepiga
Helen Hayes Theatre
240 West 44th Street
Nor is the sergeant the only official we see much help, even if he finally conveys more love for the convicted Lizzie than either parent. Believing that some children are born evil, he pushes the drama into the realm of the nature-nurture dispute, where everybody's got doubts. The old style's comforting sense of a social fabric, like its cozy images of marriage and family, has dwindled in this new world: One cop stands in for everybody, from therapist to prosecutor to judge. There's circumstantial evidence of Lizzie's guilt, but no proof; her confession tilts the play toward another hot issue, recovered memory.
Never quite adding up, Wolf Lullaby's ellipses and implications bother the mind instead of enriching the spirit. Where an old play might have toyed gently with such uncertainties, the new style aims for discomfiture. Neil Pepe's production, pushing the actors at each other in hard, fast confrontations, is played on a vast, almost bare set, by Walt Spangler; Howard Werner's sharp lighting doesn't so much define the space as chop off segments of it. This disorientation is part of the new-style world; the safety of the old dramaturgy is gone. The four strong performances, in the Atlantic's customary flat, neon-bold style, are only marginally marred by the periodic slippage of accents: Today's global media give even Tasmanians flecks of American speech.
Nineteen-forties Harlem, in The Old Settler, seems far more exotic than Tasmania, partly because John Henry Redwood's play, squarely in the old style, takes time in its leisurely narrative to explain its tidbits of slang and custom; the author is as much tour guide as storyteller. Just as well, since his story, though touching, is familiar, its sad ending visible early on. Focusing tightly on his heroine's emotional travail, Redwood keeps his tale almost sternly cordoned off from the outside world. The fact that there's a war on does no more than vaguely brush by.
"Old settler" is apparently Harlem's euphemism for an old maid, rudely applied to Redwood's heroine, an unmarried woman of tautly demure respectability sharing digs with her sister, recently deserted by the man she stole, when younger, from the heroine. Into this emotional minefield walks a country boy, in search of a room while he hunts for the girl who's come north to avoid settling for rural life with him down South. He soon becomes more than a boarder to the heroine, despite their age difference; her sister inevitably envies their happiness. The girl, who resents being dumped for an older woman, just as inevitably intervenes, with expectable results. Left alone, the two sisters are at last reunited, if only in shared pain.