As the Word Turns

The real question is why Lucas, a serious writer noted for his subtlety, would engage in what, taken crudely, seems only an exercise in discreet Grand Guignol. The answer, presumably, is that he means the crudity as a medium for discussion on that higher plane where people have to put their life choices in perspective, facing not only their own desires but the consequence and meaning of their actions. This sets him a fierce aesthetic problem: The deeper the language goes into the moral and metaphysical realm, the further away it gets from the characters, hamstrung as they are by the melodrama's elaborate circumstances. In the couple's dialogic struggle—which in the second half rises to some powerful heights of excitement—you can easily sense Lucas's struggle to fuse his two levels into one, to make this recalcitrant, runaway, earthbound vehicle drive to the lofty philosophic heights he wants to reach. At moments, I wished he'd had the Shavian temerity to throw the plot away and let the characters say something like: "All right, you want to torture and murder me. Let's discuss the ethics of that." But even Lucas, who's really just beginning to extend his remarkable reach as a playwright, would have trouble selling that to America, where to most people the unexamined life is the only one worth living. We find it so much easier to erase the past or wave it as a battle flag for revenge; the two crazy characters trapped in Lucas's web of coincidences have a lot of kindred spirits out there.

They also have, luckily, two fine actors to embody them, able to keep the physical battle going while the twisty, ethereal words writhe through the air. David Strathairn's grave, burning-eyed presence, his wholly individual way of letting emotions unroll slowly, like bolts of heavy fabric, give the man an ominous stature, against which Kyra Sedgwick deploys a furious, energized febrility. It's the irresistible force meeting the immovable object, a collision that always sends off sparks. Mark Brokaw's direction keeps them crackling, though I wish he'd given the evening a framework that suggested something going on besides the usual thriller frenzies. For starts, he might point up a few of the carefully contrived lapses from sense with which the text is salted; Lucas's gift for the way people mishear and misstate to suit their purposes is in particularly fine form.

Dillahunt, Steenburgen, and Thomas in The Beginning of August: yard tale
photo: Carol Rosegg
Dillahunt, Steenburgen, and Thomas in The Beginning of August: yard tale


The Beginning of August
By Tom Donaghy
Atlantic Theatre Company
336 West 20th Street

By Craig Lucas
Vineyard Theatre
108 East 15th Street

Texts for Nothing
By Samuel Beckett
Classic Stage Company
156 East 13th Street

I haven't many words left for Bill Irwin, but he doesn't need mine: He has Beckett's, pouring in lovely gushes of helpless entrapment and hollow reassurance, gently flecked with rue. Irwin loves and understands these pieces, though sometimes with an awareness of their double meanings slightly too self-conscious and artificial for my taste. When he lives in the words' situation, he's glorious; when he shows off their double meanings, with halting rhythms and mannered vocal shifts, he's merely actorish. On the glory side, though, he has another asset in Doug Stein's gigantic rockslide of a set (he enters skidding down it from above). Climbing, stumbling, lurching, sliding, lolling, or sinking, he meets its outcroppings and crannies with a hapless physical bravado that's the essence of what the texts assert. He may not yet have fully surrendered his diction, but his body belongs wholly to Beckett, and speaks volumes.

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