The History Channelers

I once gave an actor a play I'd written, set in the fairly remote past. "I like it," he said, "but when are you going to write a new play?" When I told him this one was brand-new, he said, "I mean a play about our own time." He was, of course, an American actor. It's an American disease to have no past, or a generic Everypast of equal irrelevance to everything new. Since we come out of the past and live surrounded by its results, and since every current issue is only an old issue being fought on new terrain, you'd think we would catch on, but we don't. When a play from the past is produced, the sense of a missed connection is sometimes more palpable than the reasons for bringing it back. The fault may be in the play, or in the artists interpreting it, and there are those classically maddening occasions when the audience, always eager to mistake dressing for substance, flatly refuses to accept the old forms and old language as expressing what may be the most pungently up-to-date notion imaginable.

The point comes to mind because I've heard people describe David Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicago as "dated." Well, I hope so. If nothing in American boy-girl relations has changed in the quarter-century since it was written, this country's in far worse trouble than even I imagine. And naturally the superficies have altered: The language—even Mamet's language—is blunter now; the paper-pushing office jobs, even the commercial artist's, are done in computer cubicles; and few people moving in with their lover would bring a milk crate full of LPs. But the acidly funny hour-long quadrille still rings true: Boy meets girl; boy gets girl; their respective best friends, older boy and older girl, try to break it up; boy, after a time, loses girl. Les Liaisons not-so Dangereuses, you might say. It's less true today only because the millennium's naive Dannys and Deborahs are likely to start out better briefed on each other's issues, less likely to listen to the embittered Bernies and Joans still around.

But the problems and needs that drove all four in the late '70s are still alive, now dressed in the arrogance of Wall Street profits and post-Reagan ostentation. And what gets them in conflict with the opposite gender isn't very far from what makes Deborah and Danny snipe at each other. Joan and Bernie, in their differing ways, are so openly hostile that you might wonder why the kids don't bond more closely out of sheer defiance. Like most things that ought to happen but don't in Mamet plays, this one conveys a flaw in the characters, not in their author: Unformed and indecisive, the two youngsters and the surrogate parents on whom they unwittingly model themselves belong to a world of children in adult bodies. And if you think that's not truer than ever, just go to a mainstream American movie instead of a play.

Josh Hamilton and Kate Blumberg in Sexual Perversity in Chicago: things the Internet hasn't changed
photo: Carol Rosegg
Josh Hamilton and Kate Blumberg in Sexual Perversity in Chicago: things the Internet hasn't changed

Details

Sexual Perversity in Chicago & The Duck Variations
By David Mamet
Atlantic Theatre Company
336 West 20th Street
212-239-6200

Teahouse of the August Moon
By John Patrick
Based on the novel by Vern Sneider
Playhouse 91
316 East 91st Street
212-279-4200

Arrah-Na-Pogue
By Dion Boucicault
Storm Theatre Company
145 West 46th Street
212-279-4200

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Even the two old men in Perversity's gentle curtain-raiser, The Duck Variations, aren't all that adult. But while sex gets the young all bollixed up, with the oldsters it's the looming presence of Death. From dawn till dusk, the duo sits on a park bench, talking mostly about ducks as they gaze at Lake Michigan. But under the seemingly nebulous, and sometimes outright goofy, chitchat is a sense of life coming to an end. Ducks die; ducks get shot; ducks get eaten (so one codger's theory runs) by blue herons. And people? Maybe it's better to talk about ducks.

Oddly enough, Duck Variations has altered its tone more noticeably over the years. It used to be slow, elegiac, Chekhovian. Under Hilary Hinckle's direction, Peter Maloney and John Tormey play it almost as a comedy sketch, brash and fast and full of beans. Well, even Chekhov's played more brashly these days, and medical advances have given the elderly a lot more get-up-and-go. What with Viagra, one might even imagine a geriatric edition of Perversity. Before we get to that point, the current cast does quite well by it. Perversity's a play in which the acting's hard to evaluate: Since the characters grate on you, every line offers the performers another chance to slide into imitative fallacy. Josh Hamilton (Danny) and Kate Blumberg (Deborah) slip now and then, Kristin Reddick (Joan) much more rarely; Clark Gregg, head of the class, avoids all slippage by making Bernie such a chilling creep you have to be fascinated. One step further, though, and you'd have to rename the play Sexual Psychopathy in Chicago.

** Neither perversity nor psychopathy touches Teahouse of the August Moon, though all kinds of sexual kinks are teasingly alluded to, in the customary butter-wouldn't-melt manner of 1950s Broadway. Americans were far less conversant with most aspects of Asian culture back then, but not so much so as this specimen of the era's commercial playwriting might suggest. (Just as the evidence of Wrong Mountain would make a time traveler think our era had no idea why the theater existed.) Some particularly screwed-up U.S. Army types get hornswoggled into appreciating the serene Asian outlook on life by some persistent Okinawan villagers. While there's blessedly little Western condescension in John Patrick's comedy, there's an irritating smug complacency to it: The Asian view of life is this not that, and we're all saps not to appreciate it. What that notion lacks, of course, is what Broadway traditionally lacks—a sense of reality. Okinawa equals A, army equals Z, A and Z struggle, and everyone shakes hands graciously around M, in time for commuters to catch the last train.

Half a century can reveal awkward soft patches in the smugness: One of Teahouse's better small roles, for instance, is Captain Mac-Lean, an army shrink who'd rather be an agronomist. The top-price payers of 1953 must have found it hilarious when he launched into his rant against chemical fertilizer and DDT; the lack of laughter now is equally deafening. John Patrick, a skilled craftsman, juggled his little ironies deftly enough. Unfortunately for him, history had larger ones in store, like the way capitalism and technology have tempted most of Asia to throw out its traditions.

The irony of an Asian American theater staging the piece is that its Asianness, meager enough, is so remote from the troupe; when the men appear in Western suits at the end, you can't tell if they're meant to be the villagers grown prosperous or the visiting U.S. congressmen. It's a play about cultural difference in which none is visible onstage, and Ron Nakahara's perfunctory production doesn't offer much else. The principal alleviations of this low-temperature event are Robert Klingelhoefer's poetic backdrops and a few nice performances: Scott Klavan, though no comedian, is personable as the teahouse-building army captain; John Daggett gets the agronomist's laughs without overstating; and Ernest Abuba plays the narrator-hero, the interpreter Sakini, with a wry half-smile and a terse matter-of-factness that are an infinite improvement over the pixieish coyness the role's been burdened with since David Wayne created it.

** Things were simpler and saner in the mid 19th century, when the theater had to offer you a decent portion of something, and the heartiest meals were served up by Dion Boucicault's mixes of melodrama and comedy. As the revival of his 1864 Gaelic diversion, Arrah-Na-Pogue, or The Wicklow Wedding, shows, Boucicault's distinctively Irish brilliance was to build his ironies out of his form's own conventions: In this play, the thickly blarneying peasant lovers, Arrah and Shaun, are the tragic figures, while the upper-crust hero and heroine, Beamish and Fanny, turn out to be the clowns. This wittily disjunctive vision comes directly from the author's Irish consciousness: The very opening, for instance, shows us a landlord robbing the rent collector of the proceeds from his own estate. The absurd-sounding act, which makes perfect sense in context, turns out to be the first link in a chain of impossible yet inevitable events that build to Shaun and Arrah being arrested at their own wedding, with him having to stand in for the unknown man he thinks has seduced her. Always calm and cunning at emotional peaks, Boucicault wrings both roaring comedy and heart-rending sentiment out of these excessive events. Irrelevant to all eras, he's gripping anytime. Even Storm Theatre's production, at its best no more than well-meaning, keeps the audience perkily attentive. There are 21 people onstage, but they mostly can't act, and their shoes make an awful clatter on the platformed set. Still, Kate Brennan's a feisty Arrah, Lawrence Drozd's Beamish has some grace, and Honor Finnegan sings "The Wearing of the Green" hauntingly. And Boucicault seems the youngest playwright in town.

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