Karl Philipp Emanuel Bach, I think, was the son
who always wrote to old Johann Sebastian, begging his dad to give up all that dreary counterpoint, and try something hip like a fantasia for a change. Papa Bach paid no attention, but went fuguing on his old contrapuntal way; as a result, much of his best work was forgotten until nearly 80 years after his death, when Mendelssohn dredged it up, starting a revival that hasn’t ended yet.
The moral of this little factoid isn’t that retro is better, but that artists are best off doing what they can, not what others tell them they should. Shelagh Stephenson’s The Memory of Water and Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth are both plays that, barring bits of language and gesture, could have been staged pretty much anytime in the last 70 years, but that’s no condemnation. Both writers have something to accomplish dramatically, and both set about it with skill and individuality. The stories they tell— family stories, generational stories, boy-girl stories— are old news, but a story’s value lies in the telling. Bach didn’t write memorable tunes either, by and large, but he knew how to make the most of them fugally.
The Memory of Water is a post-
religious Yorkshire version of that Irish favorite, the family funeral play, where the siblings gather to squabble across their mother’s coffin— literally in the last scene— over who loved whom most. Elder sister Teresa (Suzanne Bertish), who runs a health-food business with her work-weary husband, is the embittered enabler; she can’t speak two sentences without pushing somebody else’s guilt button. Middle sister Mary (J. Smith-Cameron) is the successful escapee, a neurologist who fixates on her brain-damaged patients to avoid confronting her unresolved relations with her mother, including a gnarly secret involving an illegitimate child. Mum (Robin Moseley), chatty and lively, haunts her dreams anyway. The worst mess of all is baby sister Catherine (Seana Kofoed), a drug-dazed bundle of needs and inadequacies who can’t keep from whining her way into the center of attention at all times. Most sibling trios work out a more decorous modus vivendi; Stephenson’s three are in a perpetual state of war, with Teresa’s husband and Mary’s lover (a married man) regularly caught in the cross fire. By the end there are resolutions, and a degree of reconciliation, but Stephenson’s moral might as well have been Oscar Wilde’s witticism, “Women only call each other sister when they’ve called each other a good many other things first.”
Her spicy, flavorsome writing is what saves the bickering from monotony; she knows how conversations criss-cross, why people shift topics in the middle of a discussion, where to toss in the bits of occupational jargon with which the competitive one-up each other. In addition, she has a canny sense of the absurdity that always erupts to throw somber occasions out of whack. The scene is the deceased mother’s bedroom, where sister Catherine is staying. Her life there is farcically interrupted once in each act— first by Teresa’s insistence on sorting out Mum’s clothes, then by the arrival of her coffin; both sight gags lead to trauma.
Another advantage Stephenson has, presumably evoked by the liveliness of her text, is a strong, carefully shaped production by John Tillinger, whose directorial hand is usually much looser. Here he steers his way through the tricky mixture of acrimony and foolery, rarely toppling over to one side or the other. Kofoed occasionally lets Catherine’s self-lacerations spill over into imitative fallacy, and Tillinger can’t resist making too much of both Teresa’s inebriation and Mary’s attempts to be alone with her beau. But these are small complaints, given a script so full of fast switches and tiny details. They’re easily outweighed by the solid cast Tillinger has assembled; for once the phrase “ensemble acting” is valid. J. Smith-Cameron’s Mary, sporting a brazen carapace of denial that crumples like tinfoil at every shock, gets the commanding position, but Bertish’s resigned, acerbic Teresa and Peter McRobbie as her careworn husband are close at her heels. Whatever isn’t new about The Memory of Water, it has the freshness of an experience fully sounded.
As does This Is Our Youth, though the experience itself is a slightly callower one. Set on the Upper
West Side in the greed-ridden early ’80s, Kenneth Lonergan’s two-act frenzy deals with the bright but undisciplined children of privilege who think that they know it all— or, in the case of Mark Ruffalo’s Warren, always one adorable beat behind, that their best buddy knows it all. But Warren’s best buddy is Dennis (Mark Rosenthal), whose self-aggrandizing and endless put-downs of everybody else— especially Warren— are the cover for an insecurity amounting to panic. A drop-out and part-time drug dealer, Dennis is subsidized in his own apartment by parents who are happy to have him stay away; Warren, living at home, suffers cold hostility and physical abuse from his father, busy drowning the pain of his divorce in executive wheeler-dealing.
The action, such as it is, comes from Warren’s leaving home and taking along, in response to his latest beating, a huge lump of his father’s cash on hand. The stolen money triggers a panic in Dennis, which builds into a folie à deux involving a botched coke deal, the offstage death by overdose of a friend, and cascades of self-abasing hysteria from both boys, in alternation with their lashing out at each other. For relief, there’s a half-comic romantic interlude in which Warren makes love to, and then loses, a girl he’s been coveting.
In the end, this delayed adolescent mania comes to nothing: Warren finally sees both Dennis’s vulnerability and the previously unconsidered notion that his father might also be a vulnerable, troubled human being. He goes home, having loused up everything but ready to make a fresh start. Dennis, having confessed his own hopeless terror, might or might not be ready to do something about it. Here, again, there’s nothing new; if you took out the vast amounts of profanity and drug use, you’d be barely two steps from Father Knows Best.
But the familiar is, again, made lively, here by the agreeably mordant mix of cynicism and compassion Lonergan shows his screwed-up characters, and by the astuteness of his ear; he’s particularly good at notating the sprung rhythms of the stoned. And, like Stephenson, he gets terrific directorial help from Mark Brokaw, freewheeling and inventive with movement. Ruffalo and Missy Yager, as the jittery girl he adores, are close to perfect. Mark Rosenthal is resourceful and varied in his handling of Dennis’s lengthy tirades; it’s his energy and focus that keep the evening in motion.
If only he, or somebody, could do as much for The Scarlet Pimpernel, which has been rewritten, restaged, and recast, with results that make me want to call a rehearsal, like George S. Kaufman, “to take out the improvements.” The story’s now more clearly told, but with much less charm; we never get to know the people at all, except for Douglas Sills’s Sir Percy, the fop who’s really a superhero. The expansive, grinning grandeur of both Sills’s foolery and his swashbuckling has mercifully been left unharmed. But everything around him has been stifled. Instead of Christine Andreas, elegant and teasingly seductive, we get Rachel York, yowling like a 14th-rate Piaf imitator. Terrence Mann’s Chauvelin was a grudging carbon copy of his Javert; Rex Smith’s is more like a trained seal, barking lines at York, then facing front to bark his songs at us. The score being by Frank Wildhorn, there was no way to improve it except by shooting him and starting over with an actual composer, but they might have made it sound a little more like live music. Karl Richardson’s tinny sound design, easily the worst on Broadway, suggests a 78 rpm record played over a high-school p.a. system. If I were Baroness Orczy, who wrote the enchanting novel on which this ugliness is based, I’d try to get my name taken off the program.