“In the future,” the Polish avant-garde playwright Witkiewicz once wrote, “everyone will live in contentment on the wonderfully run anthill.” Give him points for prophecy: His vision’s awfully close to the life we lead these days, if you leave out the contentment. Pawns as we are to market forces, trends, the movement of huge political blocs and vast media powers, it’s hard for us to lay claim to dramas beyond those going on in our little, scuttling lives. This situation can change: The uproar in Seattle has altered the World Trade Organization, hopefully for the better, and we can also hope that the outcry over Patrick Dorismond’s death has altered the world’s view of Rudy G., that guy who bulldozes gardens and rips open sealed juvenile court records.
But meantime, what’s a theater artist to do? Drama, the big thing people go to the theater for, is about power, about how it’s used, abused, altered, and vanquished. If the stage sticks to little private situations that lead nowhere larger, it dries up and withers; if it tries to focus exclusively on the upper reaches where the big decisions that alter the little lives are made, it’s almost certain to get hollow and factitious. Where theaters past could use their large companies for epic scope and contrast, today’s economics restrict playwrights to a small number of characters, while the pressure of conventions, uptown or down, prods them onto dramatic paths all too familiar from previous outings. Writers have to be very clever indeed to snake their way through such a maze.
Or, maybe, they just have to be continental. At any rate, a healthy European cynicism, plus a European ability to give a drama scope and thought, have made Jean-Marie Besset’s What You Get and What You Expect a play of exceptional interest—all the more so as it belongs to a species of which New York sees very few examples. Though driven by gut impulses, Besset’s characters have no problem putting their feelings into words—bless that French educational system—or even, acerbically, fitting the mess they make of their own and other people’s lives into a wider perspective. Which, of course, doesn’t make it any less of a sordid mess, only the sordidness takes on a certain grandeur as a result. In Besset’s play, human life isn’t petty and cheap as in Naturalism, nor grand and comically empty as in Absurdism: It’s grand and petty at the same time, a rotten joke that we constantly can’t help playing on each other.
Besset’s hero, a glum but gifted young architect named Philippe Derrien, is a finalist in an absurd competition—to design “the first monument on the moon”—that’s under the sway of two bureaucrats. Cunning, rapacious Louise, who sees men as sex toys to be manipulated on her way to power, seems to prefer the other candidate. Young, gregarious Pericles is equally determined that his school chum Philippe shall get the prize. Pericles turns out to have private reasons as dubious as Louise’s—but then, everyone, including Philippe and his supportive wife, Nathalie, is working by a private agenda. Nobody’s quite what they seem, and none of them could have predicted what Besset allows us to glimpse of the end. The only sure thing is that all the relationships the play sets up have been smashed by their collision under this particular set of circumstances. The seemingly backwards title turns out to be the point: You don’t know what to expect from life until after it’s worked some transformation on you—and even then, you’re likely to be wrong about what follows.
Besset tells his sharp-edged story with deceptively placid wit; the only grandiosity is the characters’. (“I am the soul of this administration,” Louise announces, in a huff.) Most of his words are purposeful, and Hal J. Witt’s translation puts most of them into pointed, playable English. I thought Besset cheated, dramaturgically, only once, where a third character is kept onstage to heighten, through badgering, a scene to which he’s irrelevant. Even this, though, shows you Besset’s ingenuity: Looked at from a different angle, the character may have reasons for staying onstage that are by no means irrelevant. If the play’s acrid tone recalls French high comedies of the ’20s and ’30s, its stark view of life as an endless, Chinese-box series of power relations suggests Genet, though without the logorrheic mythmaking.
No myths need be made about Christopher Ashley’s production, which, barring one major lapse, is just plain good work. The pleasures start with Klara Zieglerova’s smart, spacious set, which uses freestanding doors and lucite panels to make the space itself seem a sort of illusion, especially with Frances Aronson’s lights altering its dimensions from scene to scene. Pamela Payton-Wright as Louise, Peter Jacobson as Philippe’s shifty competitor, and Daniel Gerroll as a seemingly neutral party all give the kind of performances that save New York theatergoing time and again, mixing zesty reality with an assured, unpompous bigness and a touch of caricature—just enough to remind us that reality’s full of comic monsters who deserve our laughter. Better, in proportion as the roles are harder, are Kathryn Meisle and T. Scott Cunningham as Philippe’s two satellites, Nathalie and Pericles. Unhappiness is Meisle’s métier onstage; she never wallows in it, as some actresses automatically do, but wears it comfortably, like a hat that sets off her lovely face. Cunningham, similarly, seems most at ease playing indeterminate souls. Pericles is a man riven with conflicts; instead of veering back and forth, Cunningham plays each line as a balance that sums them up. Amazingly, they stoke no fires in Stephen Caffrey, who settles for Philippe’s external truculence, without a hint of the genius that we ought to see burning underneath. But then, I could be wrong about Philippe, too. Besset’s play would be just as effective if its hero were, instead of the genius he thinks himself, a mediocrity who is never found out.
Artistic mediocrity is never found out at The Waverly Gallery, Kenneth Lonergan’s obstinate and unsatisfying play about a young man’s travails with his grandmother’s advancing senility. It’s hard, in fact, to know what art or anything else has to do with the action, which locks itself onto the heroine’s Alzheimer-like symptoms and reiterates them through a series of increasingly fraught instances. That this isn’t dramatically interesting seems to strike Lonergan occasionally: He throws in funny and accurate family-dinner scenes where everybody talks at once, and scenes with the oafish naive artist whose exhibit closes the old lady’s Village gallery. We get no hint of the gallery’s former glories, if any, and only the dimmest sense of Village life before senility set in; that this waning mind is losing a precious heritage of some kind isn’t an issue. Nor, apparently, is the real-estate crunch that’s moving her out of her cherished space, a motif handled so perfunctorily it suggests an effort to conform to some dramaturg’s notes. It’s all the more puzzling because the best aspect of This Is Our Youth, Lonergan’s previous play, was its elegantly built plot.
The best aspect of The Waverly Gallery is the acting, under Scott Ellis’s direction. Josh Hamilton, an actor whose inner light isn’t easily switched on, plays the grandson movingly; Mark Blum draws a lethally funny caricature of his stepfather; Maureen Anderman, as his mother, almost turns the petty annoyances of domestic life into heroic tragedy. And an actress who can register all the phases of old age —forgetfulness, complacency, blank terror, childish tantrums, denial, and blissful recollection—with the lucid, ferocious accuracy of Eileen Heckart must have a mind as sharp and energetic as a 20-year-old’s. Though now visibly frail, Heckart is wholly present; when the cast comes out for the curtain call, she’s got the springiest step of the lot.
There was no spring in my step as I left Betwixt, David Cale’s new collection of mono- and duologues, for which he shares the stage with Cara Seymour. I wasn’t elated because the evening had never come to life. Cale’s characters are thematically linked—all stuck between two cultures, or two genders, or two ambitions, or whatever—but most of them aren’t anything beyond that. A few are funny, a few are outrageous in a tall-tale way, a few, like a piece Seymour did about sex on a beach, indulge in standard kitsch fantasies. Some of them suit the performers; others don’t. Overamplified guitar music by Jonathan Kreisberg, which would sound better unplugged, takes too much time filling in the gaps. And meanwhile? It isn’t theater. And you can’t kick back to enjoy it as cabaret, without a table to lean on, a drink, and some finger food. So what’s it doing up there? And why does such small work require two directors? I dunno. I’ve liked earlier Cale pieces, which had an arc; this one’s a flatliner.