Missing in Action

The distorting meer that Lindsay-Abaire holds up to nature can be pretty fuddy, too. Invent enough crazy characters, keep them colliding with each other, slip some kind of coherent story under the collisions as a basis for the lunacy, and you've got a play of sorts. Almost. When you start to think about Fuddy Meers, it barely adds up. Among other flaws, in his backstory the author chivalrously seems to have sent the wrong person to jail. And his play has the American peculiarity of reflecting the family as if it existed in a social void; it's the only farce I can think of with no authority figures at all. David Petrarca clearly had fun directing it, though. The game cast includes, most pleasurably, Marylouise Burke, Robert Stanton, and Keith Nobbs. And J. Smith-Cameron's Claire, the quiet center of this hubbub, is something genuinely special, a performance with the sweet ness and purity of fresh spring water.

There's a nasty stale flavor, though, to An Experiment With an Air Pump. Here the tactic is to tell two stories alternately, one set today and one at the end of the 18th century, taking place in the same country house, with the earlier events revealing the true data that the latecomers misread. If this sounds familiar, you must have seen Stoppard's Arcadia; Shelagh Stephenson's play is the oversimplified plasticine version, and it's a little shocking to find the intelligent author of The Memory of Water stooping to such naked filching—especially since she lacks Stoppard's imaginative instinct for the past. Where he sounded emotional depths and mapped mazes of interlocking ideas across them, she grabs at the obvious: Scientists are cold and selfish; artists and proles are warm; and Roget, who invented the thesaurus, only talked in synonyms. The main event, in 1799, is the seduction of a hunchbacked servant girl by a young doctor who wants to examine her spinal curvature; the servant, a Scot, is given a sentimental naïveté more suit able to a convent-bred rich girl of a century later. It's all supposed to take place in the Newcastle home of an eminent scientist and his neglected wife. Daniel Gerroll plays the former very well, and my heart went out to Linda Emond, who, as the latter, is required to have the same tantrum in every scene in which she appears.


Barefoot Boy With Shoes On
By Edwin Sanchez
Primary Stages (closed)

Fuddy Meers
By David Lindsay-Abaire
Manhattan Theatre Club
131 West 55th Street

An Experiment With an Air Pump
By Shelagh Stephenson
Manhattan Theatre Club
131 West 55th Street

Ancestral Voices
By A.R. Gurney
Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center

When all else fails, there's reading, which neatly dodges the whole question of what a play is by not requiring any production. At A.R. Gurney's Ancestral Voices, performed Sunday and Monday nights on the set of Contact, the cast of five changes every few weeks; shifts of lighting, rather as in Beckett's Play, remind the actors who's reading or narrating at any given moment. The rest depends on how good the current cast is—the very best actors will gladly commit for so few performances—and on how interesting you find Gurney's text, which is meant to show the upper Anglo-Saxon caste he writes about coming apart under the influence of the Depression and changing mores, but more often succeeds, through conscious nostalgia and stiff-upper-lip bathos, in suggesting that it ought to have stayed together. As Edmund Wilson pointed out in his famous analysis of Emily Post, Americans deeply want to believe in a social Valhalla; Gurney's Buffalo version of one, not too grand and not too easily crumbled, fits our more affluent theatergoers just right; like Goldilocks, they're perfectly happy eating someone else's cold porridge from days long gone. The indeterminacy of form with which Gurney means to underscore his tale of shifting mores passes them right by; as long as actors are onstage speaking, this audience could care less whether a drama's being acted or a novel read aloud. Gurney is the first writer to profit from their imperception; things being as they are in the play department, I doubt he'll be the last.

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