Literary Illusions

We've conquered the federal budget deficit, at least temporarily, but no one's doing anything to stop the vast aesthetic shortfall accruing in our public entertainments. For instance, take Dream True, a handsome and neatly made work with many likable elements. It has no big, gaping flaws; it's not a disaster. Only, as you watch, each aspect of it comes in a little under what it ought to be; in the final sum, all the tiny mi- nuses add up to an enormous lack.

The source of this ultracool piece of new music theater is one of the world's most adorable pieces of Victorian romantic hokum, George Du Maurier's novel Peter Ibbetson. First famous as a cartoonist for Punch in the 1860s, Du Maurier became even more popular late in life as a sort of love-struck Stephen King. Peter Ibbetson was read, illustrated, staged, and filmed ad nauseam for half a century. (Continuing the family's line in romance, Du Maurier's son Gerald became a dashing stage star— he was the original Captain Hook— and Gerald's daughter Daphne showed her own Gothic flair by writing Rebecca.)

Separated from his childhood sweetheart by his villainous uncle, Peter Ibbetson learns the truth after he finds her married to someone else. Having killed his uncle, he consoles himself in jail by communicating with her nightly in the dreams they inexplicably share, in the last of which he dies, contentedly joining her in heaven. In Tina Landau's version, the childhood inseparables are two boys in postwar Wyoming, one of whom, Peter Emmons, is sent east to be raised by his bachelor uncle, a Yale-based shrink. Despite this dubious influence, Peter grows up straight and marries happily; it's his pal Vernon Dexter, wandering the continent in search of him, who turns out queer, becoming militant just in time for the Stonewall Riots and HIV-positive just as the plague peaks. Though their attachment's explicitly presented as nonsexual, Pete's rediscovery of Verne spins him far enough out of control to wreck his career as an architect, snap his marriage in two, and— after he's beaten up his closeted uncle for trying to keep him away from Vernon— land him in a psychiatric hospital, where the happy dreams set in.

Jeff McCarthy and Judy Kuhn in Dream True: a cool view of fevered romantics
Carol Rosegg
Jeff McCarthy and Judy Kuhn in Dream True: a cool view of fevered romantics

Details

Dream True
By Tina Landau
Music by Ricky Ian Gordon
Vineyard Theatre
108 East 15th Street
353-3874

Amy's View
By David Hare
Ethel Barrymore Theatre
Broadway and 47th Street
239-6200

Marlene
By Pam Gems
Cort Theatre
Broadway and 48th Street
239-6200

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By turning the couple's love into same-sex Platonism, Landau removes the work's emotional centerpost; the original's supernatural highdy-dighdy is exciting precisely because the lovers' physical union on earth is forbidden by society, not by their own impulses. But while divorce might destroy the novel's mid-19th-century duchess, it's hard to see coming out as any detriment to a chic architect's career at the height of Gay Lib.

And if a union both sexual and soulful isn't the subject of Dream True, it's hard to tell what is: Landau's narrative comes in clean, gnomic bits, jumping into lyrics that extend but rarely heighten a mood. Ricky Ian Gordon's music, despite the sensitively varied textures of Jonathan Tunick's orchestration, displays a similar caution: Each lyric gets a simple, delicately repeating melody, over harmony that always tends to have a circular movement rather than progressing. It's the sound of life as a pleasant moto perpetuo, which may be enjoyable to hear but doesn't take you very far into the drama. Nor does Landau's staging, though it's by far the best work of hers I've seen so far— sharply focused, precise in its balances, uncluttered even when it sets action in several places (or on several planes of existence) at once. The one thing it doesn't do is grip; the story's laid out for you to observe as if it were a clinical case.

It seems ironically apt that the performer who registers most effectively is Steven Skybell, playing the tormented shrink. Which isn't to denigrate first-rate artists like Judy Kuhn and Jessica Molaskey, stuck with the ungratifying roles of Peter's wife and mother, or Jeff McCarthy and Daniel Jenkins, who, as Peter and Vernon, are asked to do a marathon's worth of work with only a few scattered glints of motive. Which makes the production's effort to keep us at a distance even stranger: The characters are emotionally fevered and impulsive, but we're urged to keep aloof from their passions, though we get no intellectual reward to compensate us for the vicarious thrill we waive in doing so. No romance, no realism, no sex, no humor, and no transcendence— you'd think it was a new British play instead of an American musical.

For absence of qualities, though, it would have to go a long way to beat Amy's View. David Hare's continuing success as a playwright fascinates me: Here is a writer for the stage with no sense of drama, no sense of reality, no particular imagination, and, to judge by this play, no awareness even of the British theater in his own time. I can find one explanation for his constant flow of productions: He offers people who want an old-fashioned play but feel guilty about doing so a sort of hollow simulacrum, a veneer of contemporary attitude brushed lightly over a shell that suggests some ancient piece of West End matinee kitsch, with nothing whatever inside.

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