In the old days, Broadway-goers called them “nice little plays”— tidy, sequential, small-scale items about a crisis in the life of one little group. The matinee ladies adored them; men often felt out of place at them. Terence Rattigan, who wrote several of the best British examples, named their typical spectator “Aunt Edna,” and said he created all his plays with her in mind.
Condescending as this description may seem, nice little plays weren’t necessarily stupid or trivial. At their best they could be polished, pungent, even witty. Though rarely reaching out to the real world, they could stir up waves that lapped gently at the feet of its more urgent issues. Catching— or, heaven forbid, shaping— the spirit of their time was beyond them; at best they could reflect it. Their successors, in an exploded world where niceness and littleness are no longer virtues, still strive to do as much, with mixed success. More interesting than the latest generation of less nice little plays is the way their once surefire formulas have been pulled and stretched to seem contemporary. What used to be easy can’t be, now, without sliding into arrant predictability, but the ease was the point, the sugar that made the dramatic pill go down; today’s complications only make it stick in the audience’s craw.
Wolf Lullaby at least sticks there interestingly. The Australian writer
Hilary Bell’s little play isn’t so nice to begin with, dealing as it does with a neglected child who murders to gain attention. In the past, its topic would have been on the shadow line of matinee taste, meat for a slightly disreputable thriller like the camp classic The Bad Seed. (About which Eric Bentley wrote, with inimitable cogency, “The homicidal child is a traditional source of quiet fun.”) Its tidy ending would have been cushioned with fake-serious guff about Freud and heredity. But we know too much for that, nowadays. With the news full of kids slaughtering kids, little Rhoda Penmark’s carefully contrived steps into serial murder are no longer a hoot.
Accordingly, Bell gives us a story squeezed dry and sliced thin. The scene, unexotic yet remote even for Australians, is a drab industrial town in Tasmania. Mum and Dad, separated and both working, hardly have time for nine-year-old Lizzie. Worse, neither knows how to convey affection in terms that transcend the shopping mall; materialism’s their life. They’re unequipped to interpret Lizzie’s wolfish nightmares, or spot the cries for help in her drawings. (When Mary McCann, as Lizzie’s mum, casually crumples one of these, it’s the show’s most heartrending moment.) On her way to the murder of a two-year-old, Lizzie shoplifts, and kills a neighbor’s pet bird; Mum’s too busy defending her from the local police sergeant to ponder what drives her to crime.
Nor is the sergeant— the only official we see— much help, even if he finally conveys more love for the convicted Lizzie than either parent. Believing that some children are born evil, he pushes the drama into the realm of the nature-nurture dispute, where everybody’s got doubts. The old style’s comforting sense of a social fabric, like its cozy images of marriage and family, has dwindled in this new world: One cop stands in for everybody, from therapist to prosecutor to judge. There’s circumstantial evidence of Lizzie’s guilt, but no proof; her confession tilts the play toward another hot issue, recovered memory.
Never quite adding up, Wolf Lullaby’s ellipses and implications bother the mind instead of enriching the spirit. Where an old play might have toyed gently with such uncertainties, the new style aims for discomfiture. Neil Pepe’s production, pushing the actors at each other in hard, fast confrontations, is played on a vast, almost bare set, by Walt Spangler; Howard Werner’s sharp lighting doesn’t so much define the space as chop off segments of it. This disorientation is part of the new-style world; the safety of the old dramaturgy is gone. The four strong performances, in the Atlantic’s customary flat, neon-bold style, are only marginally marred by the periodic slippage of accents: Today’s global media give even Tasmanians flecks of American speech.
Nineteen-forties Harlem, in The Old Settler, seems far more exotic than Tasmania, partly because John Henry Redwood’s play, squarely in the old style, takes time in its leisurely narrative to explain its tidbits of slang and custom; the author is as much tour guide as storyteller. Just as well, since his story, though touching, is familiar, its sad ending visible early on. Focusing tightly on his heroine’s emotional travail, Redwood keeps his tale almost sternly cordoned off from the outside world. The fact that there’s a war on does no more than vaguely brush by.
“Old settler” is apparently Harlem’s euphemism for an old maid, rudely applied to Redwood’s heroine, an unmarried woman of tautly demure respectability sharing digs with her sister, recently deserted by the man she stole, when younger, from the heroine. Into this emotional minefield walks a country boy, in search of a room while he hunts for the girl who’s come north to avoid settling for rural life with him down South. He soon becomes more than a boarder to the heroine, despite their age difference; her sister inevitably envies their happiness. The girl, who resents being dumped for an older woman, just as inevitably intervenes, with expectable results. Left alone, the two sisters are at last reunited, if only in shared pain.
The pain gets an extra fillip from the characters’ blackness. Both employed as cleaning women, the heroine and her sister are Delany sisters with nothing to have their say about; this is the Harlem of ordinary folk getting from one day to the next. Like the war, the notion that stirrings of a better life are afoot brushes by only briefly; you’d never know this was the Harlem of Du Bois and Marcus Garvey, much less the place whose anger would explode in more than one riot over the coming decades.
Love, a decent life, and a pleasant time are all Redwood’s people demand. While there’s nothing unreasonable or dishonest in that, the Harlem reality it omits is too massive for this slight tale to bear. Harold Scott’s staging, full of sympathetic moments— especially in the long silent closing scene— hinders matters by underscoring the obvious; you can hear its gears clank as it shifts tone from sad to cheerful, and vivacious Rosalyn Coleman, as the meddling girlfriend, is asked to parade like an entire marching band. Which isn’t fair, really, to Leslie Uggams and Lynda Gravatt, who play the heroine and her acerbic sister with real delicacy and pathos, Uggams adding a pallid elegance that has nothing to do with her stardom, and everything to do with the character’s sense of dignity. Godfrey L. Simmons Jr., as her perplexed young lover, is more obvious in his choices but equally heartfelt.
The people in Michael J. Chepiga’s Getting and Spending are supposedly heartfelt in the risky things they do, but it’s hard to believe in either their sincerity or the playwright’s. Everything’s laid out with such relentless cleverness, there’s no room for surprise. A female superbroker who’s been caught making millions at insider trading seeks a
super-Kunstler— who happens to have just found peace in a monastery— to defend her, telling only him that she did it to build high-rises in Harlem for the homeless. If that sounds hokey, you should hear the details.
Compounding the felony, John Tillinger’s production casts Linda Purl, whinily smug, as this St. Joan of the stock funds, and David Rasche, the most cheerily unreflective of our light comedians, as her soul-weary defender. Macintyre Dixon, who gets all the cheap laughs, at least seems to be having fun; light a candle for the rest of the excellent supporting cast— Deirdre Lovejoy, Debra Mooney, Jack Gilpin, and Derek Smith— and pray that they find a better job soon. James Noone’s set, a trio of long, narrow light boxes that move into various formations and flash various twinkly patterns as needed, shows more creativity than anything else onstage.