Short Notice

Thornton Wilder left behind at his death two unfinished cycles, meant to contain a total of 14 plays, representing the Seven Ages of Man and the Seven Deadly Sins. Two ages and one sin premiered at Circle in the Square during Wilder's lifetime; otherwise, the plays were virtually unknown until TCG Books published all the surviving items in 1997. Willow Cabin Theatre's staging of The Ages of Man, directed by Edward Berkeley, is the New York premiere of Youthand The Rivers Under the Earth(the latter assumed to be the cycle's view of middle age), while letting us see, for the first time in 38 years, Infancyand Childhood.

As you might expect, the two previously performed plays are fully realized; the other two trail off frustratingly, Riversdoing so before its intriguing title even comes into the text. Though the four events have no literal links, recurring themes run through them: Dialogue in Riversabout two-year-olds learning recalls the action of Infancy; the last three plays all deal partly with children's awareness of death. All four are set outdoors— maybe one of Wilder's rebukes to the naturalistic stage, where exterior scenes always lack conviction— and all four allude to natural phenomena like plants and rocks.

The four are all different, however, in structure and style. The cartoonish Infancyallows its babies to speak full sentences from their perambulators, contrasting their infantile eagerness to learn with the banal, frustrated routine of the adults who watch over them. Childhood, after mapping the gulf between what parents demand and their children's resentful response— including the fantasy of being orphans— shifts into a therapeutic, dreamlike game, not belonging to either side, in which the generations arrive at a mutual understanding. Youth, modeled on the 18th century's moral-discussion dialogues, has at its center an 18th-century character— the now mature Lemuel Gulliver, shipwrecked on an island where the young rule, putting their elders to death at age 29. The most naturalistic, The Rivers Under the Earthplays a Chekhovian game, giving us data about offstage characters that then silently fuels what's said after they come on— an equivalent to the subterranean currents of the title.

John Bolger (left) and Larry Gleason in Infancy: a perilous ride on the anthro-bus
Carol Rosegg
John Bolger (left) and Larry Gleason in Infancy: a perilous ride on the anthro-bus

Details

The Ages of Man
By Thornton Wilder
Blue Heron Arts Center
121 West 24th Street
886-1889

'Marathon '99: Series B'
Plays by Frank D. Gilroy, Michael Louis Wells, Susan Kim, and Stuart Spencer
Ensemble Studio Theatre
549 West 52nd Street
247-4982

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Inevitably, Wilder, whose diary records many inner struggles and doubts over the two cycles, left even the finished works in a shaky state. The cartooning of Infancy's adults is heavy-handed, while Childhood's transitions are too abrupt and its resolution too glib. (Father, it turns out, knows best.) Youth, full of wit and elegantly tossed-off wisdom, is also dogged with one of his worst coy gimmicks: the island's inhabitants speak a degenerated Cockney which weighs down the smartly phrased text. And Rivers, though often charming, has an irritating tameness: the honest folk of Our Townbeing run through the cosmic-intellectual wringer one more life-affirming time.

Even so, the plays are worth seeing, both for the gentle Wilderian humaneness that runs through them, and for the bitterer stream of wry Yankee irony with which, as always, he cuts it. If he's a sucker for helpless humanity, particularly in children, it's because he knows the world's a hopelessly cruel place, a fact he may downplay but never conceals; no ride on his anthro-bus is without its perils.

On a lower level, the goods and bads of Wilder's work are mirrored in Berkeley's production. The cartoon adults of the first piece are unfunnily overplayed, and the cast's lame attempts at Cockney grind the third piece into near-total incomprehensibility. Luckily, the opener's two toddlers, Larry Gleason and John Bolger, strike the right note from the minute they poke their heads out of their curtained carriages, and go on to prove commendable adults, with Bolger a dashing, articulately panicked Gulliver, and Gleason a touchingly rueful father in Childhood. Maria Radman is similarly good as the quietly distraught mother in Rivers— though, like her colleagues, she exaggerates and looks uncomfortable earlier in the evening, when playing a child. At ease in naturalism, Berkeley apparently can't resist pushing too far when outside its bounds. John Kasarda's set, which builds a world out of six white wooden chairs, should have been a clue. And Matthew McCarthy's lights, which drench the opening of each piece in lavishly pretty gobo patterns, should have been enough to keep any director from trying to gussy up scripts in which less is invariably more.

Something similar holds good for the four new one-acts on the second bill of EST's annual Marathon. Where the writers, directors, and actors don't try to get too ornate with ideas or effects, the short form packs a revivifying punch. When they overload the work, you look around you with a sigh and wonder how everyone else is coping with the boredom, the potential sources of which, at EST, are as varied as the plays themselves.

In Frank D. Gilroy's The Golf Ball, for instance, it's the tempo of Chris Smith's staging. A terse, smart, sardonic little script, about the foolery retired folk with endless empty time to fill will stoop to, is played at a crawl, tonelessly, as if its characters were already in their coffins. Staged with sharpness and speed, it might have underscored Gilroy's unspoken point: Busily indulging themselves, his retirees have lost contact with a world that might have some use for them beyond endless rounds of golf.

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