Past, Present, Suture

I am very old now. I started seeing plays in Greece, around 400 years before the man you call Jesus was born, and though I still hobble to my seat with a certain degree of hope in my heart, these days I often get the impression that I'm seeing something I've seen before. Granted, young artists love having a predecessor to hang onto. I remember Sophocles saying as much to me when he was still a chorus boy and used to dance naked before the archons, doing what we called solo mime back then and you today call performance art.

There is nothing new under the sun: When young artists repudiate criticism's claim to weigh them against their predecessors, they're usually just pleading for the chance to be judged fairly as equals, without prejudice, or they're just being saucy, which is a central part of any young artist's posture. Some may tell you that they're working in an experimental tradition, but that's just slovenly thinking brought on by academic jargon: An experiment that follows tradition would be a contradiction in terms. Anyway, every piece of theater is an experiment in itself, no matter how much reference it makes to what went before. The joy of art is that every new artist with sufficient spirit can arrange the old elements in a new way, and make us see the old journey with new eyes. In fact, the saddest experiences, especially for a 2500-year-old like me, arrive when the young experimenter hasn't looked back deeply enough, and proffers in all innocence something too close to its model to be fresh, but not strong enough in its borrowings to make the artist's love for his predecessor's work a source of renewed joy, as Picasso did when he painted Velázquez's Las Meninas over again.

To judge by their latest works, Adam Rapp loves Sam Shepard, and John Kelly loves Jean-Louis Barrault. But in Faster, and in the progress so far of The Paradise Project, that love has had disappointing results. In both cases, I suspect, for the same reason: The desire to do something personal and original, inspired by love of the predecessor's work, has gotten tangled up with the desire to replicate that work, so the end product is neither fish nor fowl—neither an old triumph reanimated nor a new one, made in homage, standing free. Sadly, neither of the two successor artists—so gifted and so imaginative—has thought as deeply as his elder about the elements of the work and what they might mean.

Chris Messina, Mtume Gant, Roy Thinnes in Faster: a second Shepard's play?
photo: Carol Rosegg
Chris Messina, Mtume Gant, Roy Thinnes in Faster: a second Shepard's play?

Details

Faster
By Adam Rapp
Rattlestick Theatre
224 Waverly Place
212-627-2556

The Paradise Project
By John Kelly
Songs by Mark Campbell and Michael Torke
The Kitchen
512 West 19th Street
212-255-5793

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Rapp responds to other influences besides Shepard, including the self-consciously sordid naturalism of our own time, which always seems to forget that it had an ancestor a century ago. Walking into a theater where the curtainless stage reveals a dank basement with a naked lightbulb, and an apparently retarded person crouched in a downstage corner, I instinctively look around for Lugné-Poë or Gerhart Hauptmann. Hauptmann, who created the vagabonds Schluck and Jau, would understand Faster's teenage runaways, Skram and Kitchin, who tamper not with the shape of reality, like Shepard's tormented twosomes, but with supernatural powers. When Hauptmann grew tired of writing about knocked-up servant girls and rat-bitten slum babies, he turned to allegories in blank verse, and I half expect Rapp to follow; his linguistic facility and moral perturbation clearly hunger to break out of the basement.

What Rapp does instead, in a muddled and hasty fashion, is to invite the supernatural in. The two desperate street scroungers, with Skram's mute, traumatized older brother in tow, have discovered a little girl wandering by the river, whom they plan to sell to a rich sucker. But the time, as the suddenly stormy weather indicates, is not ours but the End Time; the little girl is Hope or Salvation or Man's Immortal Soul, or something. And the moneyed purchaser proves to be our old friend, the Adversary. The action, which in the first act has consisted of manic bickering, now shifts to manic dickering. Skram is challenged to perform a loathsome task in return for a suitcase full of money, and does, but somehow never bothers to claim the cash. Kitchin can't take the tension and rushes out. Various unpleasant culminations occur; like the sections of the play, they don't much relate to each other.

Nobody insists that Rapp play by standard rules. What's annoying is that, making his own rules, he keeps either forgetting them or throwing them away, so that the game is no fun to watch. Shepard, who came to the theater through an interest in painting, always seems to have some strict aesthetic principle behind his work. Rapp, despite the many cometlike ideas that shoot through his text, seems oddly less sophisticated. One has to applaud him for his passionate concern, his willingness to steep himself in all the miseries of our dislocated world, but the results would hold more interest if he paused in his fervor to consider what he was offering his audience, other than the old news that the world's in trouble.

The pause might also guide him to directors who'd interpret his texts instead of merely, like Darrell Larsen, echoing and redoubling everything noisy and specious in them. From the naked lightbulb in the curtain warmer—which glares all through intermission, though the room's lights are supposed to have gone out in the storm—to the beat-box noise underscoring the curtain call of this almost musicless play, Larsen's work is overhyped and predictable at every step, with particularly bad effect on Chris Messina, the gifted actor who plays Skram's entire lengthy role on one hysterical note.

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