Thornton Wilder left behind at his death two unfinished cycles, meant to contain a total of 14 plays, representing the Seven Ages of Man and the Seven Deadly Sins. Two ages and one sin premiered at Circle in the Square during Wilder's lifetime; otherwise, the plays were virtually unknown until TCG Books published all the surviving items in 1997. Willow Cabin Theatre's staging of The Ages of Man, directed by Edward Berkeley, is the New York premiere of Youth and The Rivers Under the Earth (the latter assumed to be the cycle's view of middle age), while letting us see, for the first time in 38 years, Infancy and Childhood.
As you might expect, the two previously performed plays are fully realized; the other two trail off frustratingly, Rivers doing so before its intriguing title even comes into the text. Though the four events have no literal links, recurring themes run through them: Dialogue in Rivers about two-year-olds learning recalls the action of Infancy; the last three plays all deal partly with children's awareness of death. All four are set outdoors maybe one of Wilder's rebukes to the naturalistic stage, where exterior scenes always lack conviction and all four allude to natural phenomena like plants and rocks.
The four are all different, however, in structure and style. The cartoonish Infancy allows its babies to speak full sentences from their perambulators, contrasting their infantile eagerness to learn with the banal, frustrated routine of the adults who watch over them. Childhood, after mapping the gulf between what parents demand and their children's resentful response including the fantasy of being orphans shifts into a therapeutic, dreamlike game, not belonging to either side, in which the generations arrive at a mutual understanding. Youth, modeled on the 18th century's moral-discussion dialogues, has at its center an 18th-century character the now mature Lemuel Gulliver, shipwrecked on an island where the young rule, putting their elders to death at age 29. The most naturalistic, The Rivers Under the Earth plays a Chekhovian game, giving us data about offstage characters that then silently fuels what's said after they come on an equivalent to the subterranean currents of the title.
The Ages of Man
By Thornton Wilder
Blue Heron Arts Center
121 West 24th Street
'Marathon '99: Series B'
Plays by Frank D. Gilroy, Michael Louis Wells, Susan Kim, and Stuart Spencer
Ensemble Studio Theatre
549 West 52nd Street
Inevitably, Wilder, whose diary records many inner struggles and doubts over the two cycles, left even the finished works in a shaky state. The cartooning of Infancy's adults is heavy-handed, while Childhood's transitions are too abrupt and its resolution too glib. (Father, it turns out, knows best.) Youth, full of wit and elegantly tossed-off wisdom, is also dogged with one of his worst coy gimmicks: the island's inhabitants speak a degenerated Cockney which weighs down the smartly phrased text. And Rivers, though often charming, has an irritating tameness: the honest folk of Our Town being run through the cosmic-intellectual wringer one more life-affirming time.
Even so, the plays are worth seeing, both for the gentle Wilderian humaneness that runs through them, and for the bitterer stream of wry Yankee irony with which, as always, he cuts it. If he's a sucker for helpless humanity, particularly in children, it's because he knows the world's a hopelessly cruel place, a fact he may downplay but never conceals; no ride on his anthro-bus is without its perils.
On a lower level, the goods and bads of Wilder's work are mirrored in Berkeley's production. The cartoon adults of the first piece are unfunnily overplayed, and the cast's lame attempts at Cockney grind the third piece into near-total incomprehensibility. Luckily, the opener's two toddlers, Larry Gleason and John Bolger, strike the right note from the minute they poke their heads out of their curtained carriages, and go on to prove commendable adults, with Bolger a dashing, articulately panicked Gulliver, and Gleason a touchingly rueful father in Childhood. Maria Radman is similarly good as the quietly distraught mother in Rivers though, like her colleagues, she exaggerates and looks uncomfortable earlier in the evening, when playing a child. At ease in naturalism, Berkeley apparently can't resist pushing too far when outside its bounds. John Kasarda's set, which builds a world out of six white wooden chairs, should have been a clue. And Matthew McCarthy's lights, which drench the opening of each piece in lavishly pretty gobo patterns, should have been enough to keep any director from trying to gussy up scripts in which less is invariably more.
Something similar holds good for the four new one-acts on the second bill of EST's annual Marathon. Where the writers, directors, and actors don't try to get too ornate with ideas or effects, the short form packs a revivifying punch. When they overload the work, you look around you with a sigh and wonder how everyone else is coping with the boredom, the potential sources of which, at EST, are as varied as the plays themselves.
In Frank D. Gilroy's The Golf Ball, for instance, it's the tempo of Chris Smith's staging. A terse, smart, sardonic little script, about the foolery retired folk with endless empty time to fill will stoop to, is played at a crawl, tonelessly, as if its characters were already in their coffins. Staged with sharpness and speed, it might have underscored Gilroy's unspoken point: Busily indulging themselves, his retirees have lost contact with a world that might have some use for them beyond endless rounds of golf.
Michael Louis Wells's The "I" Word: Interns, in contrast, is marred by only minor flaws. Monicagate's about to crash wide open, Clinton's taking photo ops with visiting Czech president (and Obie-winning playwright) Vaclav Havel, and a boy-and-girl team of White House interns, with a female ex-intern who's been canned for leaking tidbits to the press, play out a mini-triangle that tests their varying notions of trust, integrity, and ethical behavior, partly under the eagle eye of their hardened, scary superior who turns out, like the triangle's tensions, not to be so scary after all, though politics is. Wells's lapse is to let his writing get slightly over-explanatory, while Jamie Richards's direction clutters the set with needless objects, and the younger actors' work with a "reality" that sometimes fades into an inaudible mutter. Pity, since Wells handles today's Beltway jargon with brains and even a bit of Shavian brio. Fortunately, Katherine Leask, as the fearsome boss, is a shining example to her charges crisply articulate, soundly centered, and infallible at timing her laugh lines.
What, one wonders, would an actress with Leask's flair have made of Susan Kim's Dreamtime for Alice? Not that Cecelia deWolf, who performs this monologic trudge over familiar ground, is in any way to blame; it's just that we've heard it all before, and Kim takes an unconscionably long time to repeat the old news. A middle-aged, middle-class American woman, with a boring dead-end job and a newly deceased marriage, gets stranded in the Australian outback, where she tells her troubles to the dingoes. They yelp and stay away, presumably agreeing with me.
But if Kim's ramblings cue a good snooze, be sure someone pokes you awake for Stuart Spencer's In the Western Garden, the evening's gem. It's 1989; a famous old abstract expressionist painter and his patient, sagacious wife are visited on their Hamptons farm by his longtime dealer, with a hot young conceptual artist in tow. The dealer, on the verge of bankruptcy owing to the crash in art prices, desperately needs product; the conceptualist wants either to replace his boyhood hero or to subsume him into the anonymity his pomo installations express. The artist and his wife have secrets of their own to unveil. Packed into the play's short space are a neat, effective intrigue, a fierce debate about the nature of creativity, four vivid characters, and, under Judy Minor's loose but not lax direction, three strong, touching performances by Robert Hogan, David Margulies, and Peggity Price. The only blemish on this otherwise perfect picture is Rob Morrow's drab, perfunctory rendering of the young conceptualist. He can't hinder either the wit or the nearly palpable passion behind Spencer's mordant contrivance.
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