Old Tales Retangled

'Fifth' Still Has Kick, but 'Kimberly' Is All Akimbo

"Unhappy is the land that has no heroes," complains the young monk in Brecht's Galileo. To which his wiser master replies, "Unhappy is the land that needs a hero." Put the word "play" in place of "land" in that exchange, and you learn something about art, which mostly displays models of human disaster and failure. Certainly dramatic art does; almost all of Shakespeare's heroes, for instance, are either murderers, failures, or both. Modern plays in which you can't tell who's the hero came in with Chekhov, writing under the stimulus of Ibsen, and have stayed in place, uneasily, never quite supplanted by the kind of contemporary play in which you can't quite tell who anybody is. A handy way to watch the play that has people but no heroes melting into the kind that barely has people at all is to see on successive nights, as I did, the Signature's revival of Lanford Wilson's 1978 drama Fifth of July and MTC's Kimberly Akimbo, the newest blend of familial dislocation and whimsy by the author of Fuddy Meers.

A tiny warning label should be issued with the strong recommendation to see Fifth of July. Director Jo Bonney, best known for her work with solo performers, occasionally seems to be taking the characters' words as messages from the author. She slows the action down languidly, and at one or two moments stops it altogether, while someone delivers a significant statement. But the scene of this play is the Talley residence, once home to the wealthiest family in Lebanon, Missouri, and now occupied by its children and their circle, shell-shocked refugees from the abortively revolutionary Berkeley campus of the 1960s. Even if they believe their Important Pronouncements, which they probably do in part, the author—who wasn't born wealthy and didn't attend Berkeley—most likely doesn't. Like us, he observes the action from a distance, loving the characters as they helplessly try to rescue their better selves from the mess made by their own dark sides, and realizing with a chill that what he's notated is exactly the way in which our worser selves so often succeed in dragging us down.

Heroism, the bravery to be one's best self, is not only one of Wilson's themes but a topic his characters pick apart from time to time. The discussion starts with an outrageously funny Inuit folktale (authentic, as it happens), about starving Eskimos and a giant fart. The story's downbeat ending and the moral ambiguity of its hero's boldly vulgar action provoke a succession of critiques from the play's characters. The tale, they complain, lacks "a saving grace." What they don't see is that the grace is in the act of telling: Survival is the tale's theme, and its characters all die, but the transmission of the story itself guarantees that they survive.

Posey and Leonard in Fifth of July: another look at the left
photo: Rahav Segev/photopass.com
Posey and Leonard in Fifth of July: another look at the left


Fifth of July
By Lanford Wilson
Signature Theatre
555 West 42nd Street

Kimberly Akimbo
By David Lindsay-Abaire
Manhattan Theatre Club
131 West 55th Street

Only Kenneth Talley (Robert Sean Leonard), the deceptively calm center of this whirlwind of post-'60s resentment and disillusion, has a flickering awareness of the tale's potential meaning—enough of one, at least, to make him treat the conventional response as a joke. But then, Ken treats everything as a joke, including his own battered life. A gay radical who inexplicably allowed himself to be drafted, he's come back from Vietnam with bad dreams, two prosthetic legs, and no particular future. His notion of heroism's saving grace rarely extends beyond making quips like, "I may never dance Swan Lake again," after someone has knocked him down. Apart from his crutches, his principal supports are his aunt Sally (Pamela Payton-Wright), once the youthful heroine of Talley's Folly but now a dotty widow who talks to objects as readily as to people, and his lover Jed (Michael Gladis), a stolid horticulture-obsessed gardener, who watches over Ken like a cutting expected to regrow.

Ken's unironizing counterpart is his sister June (Jessalyn Gilsig), the most angrily unreconstructed member of his Berkeley circle, who, steadfastly unmarried, is visiting from St. Louis with her 13-year-old daughter Shirley (Sarah Lord), whose affection-starved precocity learns its clamorous tropes from old Betty Grable flicks at her neighborhood revival house. Balancing the Talley clan is a counterforce, equally divided in its intentions and just as confused morally, consisting of the Talleys' pal through high school and Berkeley, John Landis (David Harbour); his wife Gwen (Parker Posey), copper heiress and would-be country singer, her brain frizzed on medication and family money; and her cluelessly New Agey guitar accompanist, Wes (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), the teller of the Eskimo-fart story.

With three generations of clashing sensibilities and differing levels of disillusionment trapped in an old house, you hardly need a plot, and Wilson's trick is to give you one that isn't. Like the movements of the '60s themselves, the narrative elements build up to vociferous public demonstrations and then startlingly melt away, leaving behind only a clatter of might-have-beens and a batch of puzzled people trying to pick up the pieces. At the end Ken is saved from his own worst impulses, along with the house itself, by an action that smacks more of emotional blackmail than heroism, carrying the saving grace in its most topsy-turvy form. His response to being rescued, appropriately, is, "You know you're all going to pay for this." The moral, if any, is rather complex: Since all friends ultimately betray you, the best friends are those who do it for your sake rather than their own.

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