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Mixed Blessings

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

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.

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.


In contrast, the touch of greatness in Romola and Nijinksy comes from the young actor at its center, David Barlow, with a strong assist from Lynne Alvarez's script and Robert LaFosse's choreography. Being an interested party (Barlow played the lead in a translation of mine Off-Broadway last year), I would have hesitated to assert this as my own opinion; fortunately, I have the opening-night audience's evidence to back me up. The play ends with a re-creation of the notorious St. Moritz recital that confirmed Nijinsky's insanity: a deranged monologue into which LaFosse has inserted a violent, disconnected dance that resembles a schizoid premonition of postmodernism. Barlow's performance invests this brief summary of dementia with a power that makes the moment seem vast and eternal; the tiny theater and the paper-thin play suddenly take on gigantic stature. When the house lights came up following the curtain call, the transfixed opening-night audience refused to leave, its applause not diminishing, till Barlow and his Romola, Kelly Hutchinson, emerged for another bow. Even on opening nights, this isn't a common occurrence Off-Broadway, with actors whose names are not yet household words. The reviews for the work as a whole are likely to be unsympathetic, but stay to the end and you may agree with the applauders.


Skip Sudduth and Paul Reiser in Writer's Block: inferiors
(photo: Carol Rosegg)

My own review's negative but not unsympathetic. Though often told, the story of Nijinsky's breach with Diaghilev and his marriage to Romola de Pulszky is hard to dramatize without picking villains or committing some similar sort of glibness. Alvarez's version, maddeningly elliptical and sodden with needless atmospheric froufrou, has four or five passages of strong, vibrant writing when it cuts the attitudinizing and gets down to dramatic brass tacks. David Levine's direction unhappily plays up to the attitudinizing side, making almost everything too arch, too loud, too obvious, or too abrupt. LaFosse's pre-finale contributions tend to seem as cluttered and irrelevant as his last dance is cogent and terrifying. Hutchinson is often touchingly effective, as is Janet Zarish in two maternal roles. But much of the acting is crude, and the amount of yelling as a substitute for emotional conviction is strangely high for such a small space. Even Barlow shouts too much—though his shouts, like everything else he does, ring true. Ultimately, Alvarez's play doesn't reveal what, if anything, she thinks was at the root of Nijinsky's tragedy, or what part Romola played in it. But credit where credit is due: She, Levine, and LaFosse set up that final situation, in which Barlow gives us a vision of the abyss. For a minute, greatness becomes palpable.


Even mentioning greatness seems absurd in the vicinity of Writer's Block, Woody Allen's new bill of one-acts. Civilization's crumbling; war, plague, and economic disaster swirl around us. And what's on Woody's mind? Frustrated writers and upper-middle-class adultery. Enhanced, as in his Bergman-meets-Fellini-over-pastrami movies, by a little artsy borrowing: Albee, Kafka, and Pirandello schmooze with the wife-shedding wannabe scribblers. There's 10 or 15 minutes of good Allenish laughter in the two-hour evening, and the balance is harmless enough, so the issue's only what you're willing to pay for. Paul Reiser embodies the first play's neurotic fall guy very convincingly, and Christopher Evan Welch makes a droll cartoon of the busybody who unwittingly enables the second play's upheavals. The others, whose roles reduce them to props that spout gag lines on cue, do what they can; Bebe Neuwirth in particular deserves better.


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