Mixed Blessings

Even When Theater's Bad, It Has Ways of Making Good

You know the Chekhovian anecdote about the actor who gets his line wrong. "We're traught in a clap!" he exclaims, and then tries to repair the damage with "I mean, we're clapped in a traught!" Correcting the mistake only makes it worse; critics know the feeling only too well. The two basic parameters of our art: (a) The critic holds the theater to its highest standard, always demanding perfection. (b) The critic loves the theater so much that all the flaws in a work can be forgiven for the sake of one minute's greatness. Anyone sense a contradiction here? But like the unlucky actor in Shamrayev's reminiscence, we who review plays persevere, going from one mistaken extreme to the other, every now and then miraculously getting something right. And as on the stage, getting the simplest thing right turns out to be extremely difficult.

This is by way of prelude to a trio of Off-Broadway productions that get many things, sometimes big central things, wrong. But two of the three have, at the end, a few minutes' greatness. Should I pan them for their failings, or rave about them for the greatness's sake? What I'd prefer, I suppose, would be for readers to gauge from my review whether the work will interest them enough to judge it for themselves. "The drama's laws the drama's patrons give," which means you, who pay for your seats, and not me and my ilk, who get comps. The critic has to know what art costs the public, as well as what it costs the artists. But the public's approval, too, can be reviewed; everything that affects the critic is fodder for criticism.

That includes the entire world—I went into the theater because, after seeing Jean-Louis Barrault's company, I believed theater could include the entire world—and a sense of the world is what makes me feel greatness at the end of Lanford Wilson's Rain Dance, a problematic play having its New York premiere in a deeply flawed production as the finale of Signature Theater's all-Wilson season. Yes, I did just say "problematic" and "deeply flawed." But let me offer a supplementary suggestion: Before attending Rain Dance, go to some major news Web site, type "Indian Point" in the search box, and click. Read the most recent stories that come up, and then go to see this play about life at Los Alamos in 1945. What Wilson is up to here will be brought home to you more forcefully, and maybe the reverberations will compensate for what you dislike about the 90-minute event.

Suzanne Regan and James van der Beek in Rain Dance: not with a bang
photo: Joan Marcus
Suzanne Regan and James van der Beek in Rain Dance: not with a bang

Details

Rain Dance
By Lanford Wilson
Signature Theatre
555 West 42nd Street
212-244-7529

Romola and Nijinsky
By Lynne Alvarez
Primary Stages
354 West 45th Street
212-333-4052

Writer's Block
By Woody Allen
Atlantic Theater
336 West 20th Street
212-239-6200

You're bound to dislike some aspect of it: Wilson's characters are a young American physicist (James van der Beek), an older German-émigré physicist (Harris Yulin), the latter's jittery wife (Suzanne Regan), and an MP (Randolph Mantooth) who happens to be a local Native American. The time is the evening of July 15, 1945, so you automatically know that nothing dramatic will happen onstage; the action is only a prologue to the sight of the world's first mushroom cloud, which Wilson leaves to occur in your mind after the house lights come up. Such action as we do see is desultory; this is Wilson's version of those Conor McPherson plays in which the characters tell each other stories, except that the large topic hanging over the evening gives the stories longer and more ominous shadows than the failed little lives in McPherson's work usually offer. The drama here only surfaces in tiny, unexplored blips: a clandestine love affair, a few other murky interrelationships. Given what went on at Los Alamos, maybe one of the four is a Soviet spy, but if so, this is a secret Wilson has kept to himself. (At best it would make a good post-show guessing game, like the identity of the hero's closeted gay teammates in Take Me Out.)

Instead, Wilson smuggles into the succession of narratives a map of the world's consciousness as it existed before and after the unleashing of nuclear power, with the adumbrations of what's to come laid over the encroaching sense of what exists, like a transparency in a science textbook. The four people in the room—two waiting for a ride to the test site, two compelled by military order to stay behind—turn out to be a summary of all the cultural conflicts the moment unlocks: Europe and America; Freud and Marx; instinct and reason; man and nature; art and science; totalitarianism and democracy; innocence and sophistication; bigotry and solidarity; sexuality and companionship; war and diplomacy; despair and hope. You name it, it's in there. A few of the themes are leveraged in rather too patly: The pueblo-raised MP who just happens to be willing to discuss code talkers and also to have performed tribal dances in 1920s Paris constitutes a distinct dramaturgical stretch. But Wilson's ability to make his talk convincing, his quiet skill at sliding one idea into the next, lets the pattern of his thought take hold of you unawares.

Still, this seemingly painless process provokes a lot of resistance, partly because the absence of any overarching drama among the characters leaves the ideas virtually naked onstage, and also because Guy Sanville's production has a lackluster feel, alternately de-energized and hokey, as if simultaneously displaying a total faith in the script and a total lack of faith in the audience's ability to follow it. This passive-aggressive approach, which does little for Wilson, seems to have had a draining effect on the actors. Even Yulin, always knowing and forceful onstage, looks comparatively pallid. Mantooth, though good during his long stretches of storytelling, italicizes and pulls faces during his dialogue; Regan is so understated that her vital role nearly disappears. And I feel nothing but compassion for van der Beek, whose training, if he has any, has left him hopelessly underequipped for a role of this length and difficulty. Nobody's saying it's easy; there are probably very few actors under 30 right now who could convince an audience that they're Italian American Bronxites, passionate students of pueblo culture, who understand nuclear physics. Unluckily, van der Beek isn't one of them. Even so, when he slumps in his chair at the final fade-out, you may well sense his link, and your own, to the nightmare course human destiny has taken in this half-century. Which will mean that the play has had its effect on you, and that van der Beek, for all his limitations, has not blocked your path to its touch of greatness.

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