Creature Comforts

It would be unfair to lump Jake Weber's Victor in the same unhappy category. Here's a young actor whom we know to be articulate and energetic, at least. But he hasn't had the challenge of a heroically demanding lead role like this before, and it shows. He works up a lot of emotional steam, dashing through the longer speeches at top speed as if it would make them more exciting; he writhes and fidgets and suffers audibly. What he never does is build the role. At best, you could say he fights it to a draw. You never feel that it belongs to him, that he is a man of science who could be speaking these words, or that he's finding deeper and deeper emotions in himself as his situation steadily gets worse. With its dual sense of narrative closure onstage and burning questions left unanswered in the larger world, the last scene ought to be overpowering; instead, it catches fire only at the final moment, because Bell has had the good sense to leave the creature the devastating last word. For those willing to listen past the acting, every line in the text is that good.


As we turn to our next monster, questions of historical accuracy can be left aside. The problem with Carson McCullers (Historically Inaccurate) is the first half of the title. Does loving Carson McCullers, as one does, make seeing a play about Carson McCullers necessary? Probably not. Stage biography, accurate or otherwise, is more problematic than almost any other genre, hard to make convincing as anything but a loose string of events and and-then-she-wrotes. In addition, McCullers, a fairly unusual figure even among authors, has been much written about. There was a stage version of her correspondence with Tennessee Williams not so many years ago, and—as Sarah Schulman's script pointedly remarks several times—her own works constitute a sort of public autobiography.

Christopher Donahue and Jake Weber in Monster: grave matters
photo: Dixie Sheridan
Christopher Donahue and Jake Weber in Monster: grave matters

Details

Monster
By Neal Bell, based on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
Classic Stage Company
156 East 13th Street
212-677-4210

Carson Mccullers (Historically Inaccurate)
By Sarah Schulman
The Women's Project Theatre
424 West 55th Street
212-239-6200

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A headstrong and difficult person, McCullers never wholly outgrew a vein of lurid adolescent fantasy that travels through her remarkable writing. She had extreme mood swings, drank and smoked heavily, had a difficult on-again, off-again relationship with her equally drink-prone husband, and was afflicted with a series of strokes undoubtedly abetted by her alcohol dependence. Apart from her literary successes, hers is neither a long nor a particularly happy story. Its special problem, for dramatic purposes, is that it goes nowhere: Her troubled and restless childhood becomes a troubled and restless adulthood; she writes, she suffers, she dies. Dressing the tale up with "inaccurate" diversions, like an imaginary affair between McCullers and Gypsy Rose Lee, rather than heightening the dramatic tension, only confuses the issue.

To delve into the connection between McCullers's life and her works might offer some interest, but Schulman, hampered by the limits of permissible quotation, spends little time examining either the prose or the range of public reactions to it. The Strindbergian catch-22 of McCullers's marriage, with each party resenting the other's devotion more than anything, makes for some effective writing, but also for repetition, since the situation is a stasis from which only death can supply an exit. Too much of the rest seems scattershot, a chronicle detailing the agony of a person who never changes. The final impression is of a playwright so passionately invested in her subject that the source of her passion hasn't been communicated to us.

And it's not as if Marion McClinton's production is uncommunicative: Jenny Bacon handles the title role's recurring tantrums with grace and solidity, Rick Stear is touching as her hapless husband, and the supporting cast is generally quite good, although Tim Hopper's Tennessee Williams is so ultra-blasé he nearly suggests Noël Coward.

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