Literary Illusions


We’ve conquered the federal budget deficit, at least temporarily, but no one’s doing anything to stop the vast aesthetic shortfall accruing in our public entertainments. For instance, take Dream True, a handsome and neatly made work with many likable elements. It has no big, gaping flaws; it’s not a disaster. Only, as you watch, each aspect of it comes in a little under what it ought to be; in the final sum, all the tiny minuses add up to an enormous lack.

The source of this ultracool piece of new music theater is one of the world’s most adorable pieces of Victorian romantic hokum, George Du Maurier’s novel Peter Ibbetson. First famous as a cartoonist for Punch in the 1860s, Du Maurier became even more popular late in life as a sort of love-struck Stephen King. Peter Ibbetson was read, illustrated, staged, and filmed ad nauseam for half a century. (Continuing the family’s line in romance, Du Maurier’s son Gerald became a dashing stage star— he was the original Captain Hook— and Gerald’s daughter Daphne showed her own Gothic flair by writing Rebecca.)

Separated from his childhood sweetheart by his villainous uncle, Peter Ibbetson learns the truth after he finds her married to someone else. Having killed his uncle, he consoles himself in jail by communicating with her nightly in the dreams they inexplicably share, in the last of which he dies, contentedly joining her in heaven. In Tina Landau’s version, the childhood inseparables are two boys in postwar Wyoming, one of whom, Peter Emmons, is sent east to be raised by his bachelor uncle, a Yale-based shrink. Despite this dubious influence, Peter grows up straight and marries happily; it’s his pal Vernon Dexter, wandering the continent in search of him, who turns out queer, becoming militant just in time for the Stonewall Riots and HIV-positive just as the plague peaks. Though their attachment’s explicitly presented as nonsexual, Pete’s rediscovery of Verne spins him far enough out of control to wreck his career as an architect, snap his marriage in two, and after he’s beaten up his closeted uncle for trying to keep him away from Vernon— land him in a psychiatric hospital, where the happy dreams set in.

By turning the couple’s love into same-sex Platonism, Landau removes the work’s emotional centerpost; the original’s supernatural highdy-dighdy is exciting precisely because the lovers’ physical union on earth is forbidden by society, not by their own impulses. But while divorce might destroy the novel’s mid-19th-century duchess, it’s hard to see coming out as any detriment to a chic architect’s career at the height of Gay Lib.

And if a union both sexual and soulful isn’t the subject of Dream True, it’s hard to tell what is: Landau’s narrative comes in clean, gnomic bits, jumping into lyrics that extend but rarely heighten a mood. Ricky Ian Gordon’s music, despite the sensitively varied textures of Jonathan Tunick’s orchestration, displays a similar caution: Each lyric gets a simple, delicately repeating melody, over harmony that always tends to have a circular movement rather than progressing. It’s the sound of life as a pleasant moto perpetuo, which may be enjoyable to hear but doesn’t take you very far into the drama. Nor does Landau’s staging, though it’s by far the best work of hers I’ve seen so far— sharply focused, precise in its balances, uncluttered even when it sets action in several places (or on several planes of existence) at once. The one thing it doesn’t do is grip; the story’s laid out for you to observe as if it were a clinical case.

It seems ironically apt that the performer who registers most effectively is Steven Skybell, playing the tormented shrink. Which isn’t to denigrate first-rate artists like Judy Kuhn and Jessica Molaskey, stuck with the ungratifying roles of Peter’s wife and mother, or Jeff McCarthy and Daniel Jenkins, who, as Peter and Vernon, are asked to do a marathon’s worth of work with only a few scattered glints of motive. Which makes the production’s effort to keep us at a distance even stranger: The characters are emotionally fevered and impulsive, but we’re urged to keep aloof from their passions, though we get no intellectual reward to compensate us for the vicarious thrill we waive in doing so. No romance, no realism, no sex, no humor, and no transcendence— you’d think it was a new British play instead of an American musical.

For absence of qualities, though, it would have to go a long way to beat Amy’s View. David Hare’s continuing success as a playwright fascinates me: Here is a writer for the stage with no sense of drama, no sense of reality, no particular imagination, and, to judge by this play, no awareness even of the British theater in his own time. I can find one explanation for his constant flow of productions: He offers people who want an old-fashioned play but feel guilty about doing so a sort of hollow simulacrum, a veneer of contemporary attitude brushed lightly over a shell that suggests some ancient piece of West End matinee kitsch, with nothing whatever inside.

All that’s inside Amy’s View, anyway, is the uninteresting hostility between Amy’s widowed mother, a semifamous actress named Esmé, and Amy’s husband, a parentless prig named Dominic, who begins as a scruffy young journalist with a vague desire to make films and ends, 16 years later, having just become the next Anglo-Tarantino, with a hit flick full of exploding heads and suchlike. Esmé, meanwhile, has sustained her stubborn integrity through increasingly reduced circumstances until, having lost everything (through a story so preposterous you may think some banker was pulling Hare’s leg), she finds some contentment acting in a pretentious two-person allegory at a Fringe theater. By this time, Amy’s dead— we’re never told how— but even that can’t reconcile an actress to a critic turned auteur.

Richard Eyre has staged Amy’s View as if it made sense, which was honorable of him, and everyone in its cast, English or American, is very good, particularly Tate Donovan as the unyielding son-in-law and Anne Pitoniak in the truly thankless role of Esmé’s mother-in-law. The chief point of the exercise, of course, is the display on Broadway of Judi Dench as Esmé. She is a solid, forthright, affecting performer, and we’re happy to have her here. However, since there are roughly 200 actresses her age in New York with similar brisk timing, cigarette voices, and sly humor, it would have been nice to see Dench act a role in a play rather than merely showing off her persona in this threadbare imitation.

And there’s even worse news from England: Pam Gems, the literary equivalent of mad cow disease, is on the rampage again, turning yet another dead celebrity’s career into tainted hamburger. Can’t she be confined somewhere, like Typhoid Mary, and forbidden to write plays on grounds of public health? A mental institution would seem to be the logical place for her false dreams: Her earlier ventures in icon exploitation, Piaf and Stanley, were merely stupid and tiresome, but Marlene is downright incoherent as well. Yes, there’s the diva in her dressing room, now scrubbing the floor, now pleading for understanding, now lording it over everyone and refusing to go on. About half the bits are untrue— trust Gems to get everything important wrong— but why care, when they’re pasted together so randomly? And there, in the midst of this pool of sewer-pipe effluent from yesterday’s tabloids, is Sîan Phillips, a singing actress of elegance, magnetism, and charm. Can her ambition in life really be to emulate the drag queens who mimic Dietrich in third-rate nightclubs? Bernard Shaw once had to review the popular 1890s soubrette Kate Phillips in a demeaning role in a stupid play. He said, “I congratulate the part on Miss Kate Phillips, without in any way congratulating Miss Kate Phillips on the part.” Just change “Kate” to “Sîan” and he’s written my review.

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