Is it the end of the century, or is it just me? I keep thinking the theater’s meant to be a great unifying place that sweeps its vast vision across all of human experience, but all I find when I go is little bits and pieces of— I was going to say “humanity,” but that’s not exactly the word. Fragments of simulacra of reductions of humanity would be more like it. Not that the theater hasn’t always used such tactics; essences and types and quickly glimpsed single-trait roles are all part of its pictorial arsenal. But there used to be an overarching sense of life that justified the simplifying and foreshortening; the little people-bites were steps on the road to conveying something larger about people. Or maybe I’ve just been missing the point all along, and the whole function of 20th-century art has been to prove that people themselves are in fact only fragments, trapped in an all-encompassing conformist system that can shrink any artist’s imaginative horizons to marketable bite-size.
Take The Eros Trilogy, Nicky Silver’s latest work, two monologues and an epistolary duet that map the fragmented lives of types familiar from earlier Silver plays. Here’s two versions of Mom, one living on demented dreams of past elegance, the other struggling toward the future in a haze of alcoholic attitude. And here, inevitably, are two versions of her queer son, the first repressed, directionless, drifting through his own dream-states till their disillusionment kicks him into improbable violence, while the second, desperate to escape the scotch-breathed maternal embrace, acts out and lashes out in wild defiance, until guilt turns him all cozy and enabling.
Silver’s a skillful writer, and within his familiar framework, everything his quasi people say is convincing. He has comic gifts, so their little narrations are mined with laugh lines that create bursts of glee between the bouts of pathos. Where he falls down is action. In the first half’s monologues, everything’s happened already; the only “dramatic” problem is why the speakers should be telling us about it— really a problem for the actors, not for us.
In the second half, at least, mother and son can tell each other the news while we eavesdrop. Making no direct contact till the end, they read through the correspondence at matching desks; it’s as if Silver had set out to write a gay oedipal version of A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters. Like the first half, this nonmeeting of mother and son lopes through a long series of events, beginning with the dim nascence of the son’s sexuality as a 10-year-old at camp and ending with him as an established, if minor, L.A. actor recovering from his lover’s death. The only surprise, given the way Silver normally toys with the outrageous, is how carefully even the touchiest elements here are made comfy: Mom’s an alcoholic, but we never see drinking to excess or any of its hideous effects; we hear about one early incident at the very end, after she’s joined AA. Son, in college, takes up with a hustler and evolves a happy long-term relationship instead of getting ripped off, infected, or abused. The events aren’t unbelievable, but since they’re all narrated instead of happening, you wish they had at least a touch of extravagance.
For that, though, you have to go to the acting. Zak Orth renders the plump, compulsive son of the first half wholly convincing, pitching his emotions feverishly high while skillfully varying his volume and tone. T. Scott Cunningham, as the more stable son of the duologue, navigates the windy prose of his letters with the vivid ease of a champion skier. As a bonus, you can watch him in the shadows while the light is on the other desk, reacting with immaculate precision to every line he’s ostensibly reading as Betty Buckley speaks it.
You probably won’t have time, though, since you’ll be busy watching Buckley, who tackles the challenge of making the same essence of Mom look like two different women with the aplomb and efficiency of a great French chef compelled to turn a single can of Campbell’s into two contrasting triumphs of three-star cuisine. Even at this late date in the century, Buckley makes the kind of woman who still goes to a dressmaker, and writes letters to her son instead of phoning, not only credible, but comprehensible and interesting. We can only guess what she might achieve if Silver or somebody wrote a play for her. You remember plays, don’t you? They’re made up of actions.
Unless, of course, they’re by Harold Pinter, master of inaction and misdirection. His having been canonized over the years, not least by himself, makes evaluating him tricky. As it does producing him: Ashes to Ashes, 45 minutes long, is being offered at regular Off-Broadway prices, which would seem less obnoxious if it were self-evidently a great play. Canonization notwithstanding, Pinter’s a wretchedly uneven writer. His half dozen or so great works— some of them miniatures— are imperishable masterpieces; the rest are more like the Styrofoam beads that keep the masterpieces from crushing each other in transit.
Like the masterpieces, the makeweights sustain the same uninflected deadpan, present the same unfeeling relationships that inexplicably alter as you watch, and break for laughs with the same lurches into dimwit chatter or absurd English place names. The difference is a purely sensual, or maybe sixth-sensual, matter: During the masterpieces you feel that something genuine is occurring; the filler unhappily offers no such grip. You might, after extensive study of the printed text, be able to map its intended connections, but the effort would be a purely academic one; nothing in the play would make you care about it.
Ashes to Ashes ought to contain, at least, the pleasure of suspense within its puzzle. In a country house, a woman is telling a man whom we presume to be her husband about her relationship with another man, whom the ‘husband’ subsequently refers to as her “lover.” By her description, he has been a key player in some political atrocity, the images of which are carefully pitched to suggest but not specify the Holocaust.
Challenged by her ‘husband,’ the woman concedes that she has no “authority” to discuss such things, because she and her friends “have never suffered.” We shortly find, however, that this notion is only relative. The lover whom she describes as menacing her so tenderly has also appeared in her story “tear[ing] all the babies from the arms of their screaming mothers.” Naturally, at the end, we see her become one of the mothers whose baby has been so torn; her unsuffering innocence may be only a state of psychotic denial. Her ‘husband’ ‘s questioning often suggests a therapist rather than a spouse.
Or it would, if her psychotic lapses weren’t echoed by his falls into a kind of niggling, pedantic buffoonery— like a speech equating faith in God with the attendance at a soccer match— that no one would tolerate in a therapist. As she retreats into victimhood, he attempts to promote himself into the role of her menacing lover; as with almost every other tactic he tries, she declines to respond.
No doubt it’s all very ingenious. But why would anybody want to see it? Pinter’s been through the messed-up dynamics of married couples and their visions of an alternative existence a few million times before. Ashes to Ashes, with its smarmily predictable reality jumps and verbal glitches, doesn’t even have the somber glints of word music that redeemed earlier versions. As for Pinter’s desire to pin mass slaughter as a trinket on this one-act divertissement about marital dynamics, to me it stinks both ethically and aesthetically. The irony is that one or two of his greatest short works deal with the torture of political prisoners in a form that’s fully achieved and unquestionably honorable. Let’s charitably pass over Ashes to Ashes as a forgivable flip, and wait for the next Pinter masterpiece. The production offers a lone justification in the form of Lindsay Duncan, an actress who can make even this shabby script sound magical. She has an unfair advantage over her costar, David Strathairn, since the role’s dual-voltage craziness allows for anything she chooses, while he has to seem sane.
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