Who Died?


After many years of pondering, W.H. Auden revised his most famous line from “We must love one another or die” to “We must love one another and die.” He wasn’t implying causation, just facing reality. Death, though inevitable, is something we used to be much more squeamish about. Not that anyone wants to bring back squeamishness, but is heedlessness the only alternative? I ask because it tends to reduce dramatic interest. If murder, for instance, is so casual that it’s accepted as a matter of course by both victim and perpetrator, there’s not much reason for anyone else to sit watching. In film, where you get car chases and splatter effects as a bonus, some tastes, though not mine, are gratified by the activity itself. Personally, I need a little motivation to make the business palatable; there’s enough random killing in the world outside the playhouse to glut the most compulsive appetite.

It’s hard to empathize with the anonymous corpse bulging under a female soap star’s bedsheets in Nicky Silver’s The Altruists, since it’s that of an attempted murderer who, when finally identified, turns out to have been a repulsively violent person all through life. The 80-minute comedy Silver builds on the soap star’s discovery of the corpse intercuts her trauma with a series of comic flashes involving her brother, her boyfriend, a woman friend whose lesbianism is largely a political allegiance, and a hustler who’s her brother’s latest infatuation. Somebody’s going to have to take the rap for the body in the bed, and you know it won’t be the soap star; the difficulty is that this story—short, unpleasant, and worth about 15 minutes of stage time—has little to do with Silver’s satire, which is aimed at rich people who talk radical and the less rich souls who invent radical excuses for sponging off them.

Content to note the hypocrisy of these familiar figures, like a naughty child spying on his elders, Silver’s disinclined to dig into what, other than affluent guilt, might move the privileged to rally to the side of the have-nots. Inevitably, in his cynicism, he underestimates his altruists; on the other hand, naughty children are ideally positioned to notice when the emperor is parading naked. (Good children, who don’t speak out of turn, are generally less entertaining.) If Silver settles too often for the cheap shot and the easy mark—like when one of his self-righteous lefties needs to frame somebody, the choice has to be one of the truly deserving poor—his cheap shots still score any number of accurate comic hits when the targets are suitably small. That he can’t bring down the bigger game comes from his assumption that he’s hunting in a world where everything’s flatly this way or that; the larger targets have more than two dimensions. If he started by imagining the body in the bed as a person rather than a nightmarish cartoon, his whole pursuit would be different—not to say more sporting.

With David Warren staging, it hardly matters how many of Silver’s darts hit the bull’s-eye: Warren’s directorial metronome, in a fine frenzy rolling, keeps the cast charging from one line to the next at a breakneck pace, leaving them no time to stop and count the wounded. The method wouldn’t support many other plays, including some of Silver’s, but it works well here to keep the pasteboard characters in steadily spinning motion. His actors sustain it with surprising grace, the chief wonder being that they don’t stop to goggle at Veanne Cox, who, as the soap star with the corpse crisis, leads the charge with a mixture of fervor and elegant clarity that suggests what might have resulted if Kay Thompson had ever played Joan of Arc.

Less tangible corpses turn up in Michael Hollinger’s An Empty Plate at the Café du Grand Boeuf, a quasi-Absurdist comedy with a love tragedy concealed inside, like a chocolate cream with a particularly nasty filling. The problem isn’t the unexpected sourness, but the way it ruins the taste of the candy and vice versa; nouvelle cuisine was invented to be surprising, not sadistic. The thing is also a little too elaborately rigged up for such a crude effect, its basic premise being a four-star Paris restaurant that exists to serve only one customer, its fabulously wealthy gormandizing owner, whose taste for the niceties of haute cuisine is only equaled by his obsessive admiration for Hemingway, three days after whose death the action takes place. About a third of the evening’s 90 minutes are spent either describing elaborate dishes, or describing and acting out bullfights, both of which infuriate me in the theater—the latter repel me both morally and physically, while the former remind me that I haven’t had dinner yet. While onstage the chef and the headwaiter are tempting Monsieur to try “wild game consommé with poached rabbit quenelles,” I hold my head in pain and try not to think about the leftover burritos in my refrigerator.

My distaste hasn’t stopped me from noticing that, within the annoyingly glib structure, Hollinger’s writing can be both inventive and funny; when he notices that the world has gotten over the Hemingway myth, he may even write something of value dramatically. Meantime, John Rando’s production has served up this dubious slice of dramatic cutlet very stylishly; I won’t say more because Rando’s skill with sauces and garnishes has occasionally dressed up some of my own stale classical entrées. Jonathan Freeman and Michael McCormick, as the grandiose headwaiter and persnickety chef respectively, make an appealing comedy team, and Matt Stinton is endearing as the inevitable new arrival. (He plays what used to be called the “Wagner tuba,” but—unlike Hunding in Anna Russell’s famous description—he does not play it very well.) I was perturbed by Annie Golden’s tendency to turn the waitress into On the Town‘s Lucy Schmeeler; probably playing opposite Freeman again automatically triggers the same response. A much bigger problem, though, is the big ox at the center of the drama; there’s nothing grand, and very little to connect to emotionally, about George Wendt, who plays the owner-customer in a colorless mumble that conveys only the barest hint of the spiritual pain behind his long speeches and elaborate schemes. I don’t know that a more magnetic actor in the lead would bring this script to life, but it’s not a dish of the hearty kind, that needs only to be plunked down on the table for the feasting to start.

In this respect, it’s the antithesis of Sam Shepard’s True West, a play so simple, straightforward, and taut that it’s practically unkillable. (If its first New York production, which Shepard disowned, couldn’t kill it, nothing can.) Matthew Warchus’s Broadway revival doesn’t exactly get in the script’s way, but also never quite comes to grips with it. The eerie, half-desolate space of this absurd house, located in an edge-of-reality suburb where coyotes prowl the banal streets, is never evoked, and Claire van Kampen’s hard, New Yorky, electric jazz, which fills the gaps between scenes, couldn’t be less relevant to this drifty vision of L.A. Where other productions have striven to find the kinship between these two brothers who switch roles, this one actively exaggerates their difference. As Lee, the bandit brother who’s been living in the desert, John C. Reilly, with his squirrel face and sanding-brush voice, could easily come from this boozing, fractured rural family, but Philip Seymour Hoffman not only makes Austin, the screenwriter brother, a stereotype college boy, but goes well beyond that, into the realm of cartooned dweebs and crybabies. But this can’t be, because Shepard’s brothers are evenly matched; we care about them equally, finding things to love and dislike about both. That’s the source of the structure’s tensile strength.

Shepard’s plays, which always tend to start out in a deadpan tone, can work up a fair amount of emotional heat, but whining rarely appears on their spectrum of feeling—least of all in an equal contest like this. (The one exception I can think of is the monologue of the humiliated high-school boy in The Unseen Hand.) Since Hoffman is currently the media’s resident whinemeister, casting him as Austin is hopelessly off base, and the prospect of seeing him play Lee—the two men are alternating, a good idea in principle—is unlikely to tempt me to a second visit. Robert LuPone gives the producer an appropriately two-faced air, but Celia Weston, mystifyingly costumed as the height of upper-suburban chic and looking around the same age as her two sons, makes nothing of the mother’s hilarious intervention. Still, the script is so strongly built that none of Warchus’s missteps can either halt its forward momentum or weaken its pungent, unnerving power as a parable—the meaning of which, as with all great parables, you can never wholly pin down. But given the number of stagings True West has had in the last two decades, you’ve probably seen it captured better.

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