Originality isn’t everything in art. Weighed down by 2500 years’ worth of predecessors, modern artists have spent countless hours hunting for alternate ways to do the same basic things, increasingly twisty roads that nevertheless still usually lead straight back home. Too often, the work that means to take you someplace entirely new is the one that merely leaves you stranded—or, worse luck, steers you down some overtraveled road from sheer force of habit. Old routings die hard, and the more self-conscious artists are about the newness of their work, the more they’re likely to be engaged in unconscious replication.
Even on those terms, there’s a lot that’s gifted, exciting, and pleasurable in David Grimm’s Kit Marlowe, a work that, like the Elizabethan poet himself, is easy to admire but almost impossible to love. In his eagerness to give his rich material shape and forward motion, Grimm stumbles in unwitting glee into every standard trope the historical play has to offer, and only intermittently talks his way out again. If a homosexual drama with an all-male cast can be called a bodice ripper, this is one.
The historical Marlowe reverberates with us because, in an age of discretion and consensus, he was nakedly perverse and contrarian. The era’s HUAC-style rat finks didn’t need to tell us that he scoffed at Christianity and said, “All those who love not tobacco and boys are fools”; his plays make his views on those matters abundantly clear. They also make clear that he had a sadistic streak and an infatuation with power. Shakespeare tested Burbage with roles of every emotional color; what Marlowe gave his leading actor, freakishly tall (probably macrocephalic) Edward Alleyn, were poetic exercises in thuggery, full of steely, high-polished, maddeningly regular tirades. They’re summed up in C.S. Lewis’s mordant description of Tamburlaine as “the story of Giant the Jack Killer.”
Grimm snatches clues and lines from the plays, as he does from the biographical data, to weave an intrigue drama of his own about Marlowe. Loved by his worshipful schoolmate, Thomas Walsingham, the adventurous poet signs his soul in blood to Thomas’s nasty uncle, Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spy-catcher-in-chief. While young Tom fights off an arranged marriage, young Kit gets ever more deeply embroiled in espionage, even after theatrical success and admission to Sir Walter Raleigh’s band of freethinkers ought to liberate him.
Ironically, this ping-ponging structure blocks Grimm from exploring the two aspects of Marlowe that would interest today’s audience: his violent nihilist rage and his evolution as a poet. Instead, all we get is the wuss who came in from the cold: Boastfully swaggery with Thomas Walsingham, Grimm’s Marlowe becomes a hurt kitten whenever devilish Sir Francis turns up. Yet the historical Marlowe, who seems to have been as vicious a brawler as Ty Cobb, was more probably rescued from scrapes than put into them by his informant status. Grimm wants us to see his death as the Agency’s retribution, but the documents Leslie Hotson unearthed 75 years ago make clear that it was most likely just another tavern brawl in the life of a born brawler—who also happened to be queer, an atheist, and one of England’s formative poets.
Still, even Grimm’s imitative strokes are bold ones; these days a glibly negative Marlowe would be the obvious choice. Any plans he had for reviving old-style historical histrionics, though, are thoroughly buried in Brian Kulick’s production, visually striking but heartlessly apathetic to acting values. Except for Keith David’s glossily urbane Raleigh, everybody simply yells as often as possible; you can tell who’ll have the most lines by the amount of frog on their vocal cords. Christian Camargo, in the title role, escapes by delivering every speech in a colorless, high-speed monotone. I can’t say I blame him—he must resent knowing that he’ll have to spend the last scene crammed in a stuffy compartment below a trap door.
Arthur Garden—no poet he—gets three times Marlowe’s angst, but less than a third of his vindictiveness, in Anne Meara’s coarse but lively Down the Garden Paths, an alternate-universe game in which Artie, science-journalist offspring of an aging comedy team, wins an award three times over for a book on how choices alter our lives, and then has to cope with three different versions of his farcockta family life. Many playwrights, including J.B. Priestley and Max Frisch, have previously twiddled the joystick of this sci-fi amusement—the highest score in my book goes to Peter Parnell’s An Imaginary Life—but Meara, keeping her sharp eyes on domestic issues, handles it pretty well. Once you stop trying to parse the logic behind the changes from scene to scene, the details play out smartly and entertainingly. David Saint directs in awfully broad strokes, but the cast’s familial air is extremely ingratiating: Leslie Lyles makes two versions of Artie’s wife unnervingly real, while brash Amy Stiller is fun as an overcompensating sister and a frazzled daughter. Anne Jackson and Eli Wallach make unlikely tummlers, but altogether convincing parents, particularly Jackson, who can convey total inebriation with one flick of a hand or foot. And John Shea, who, as Arthur, has to carry this metamorphing world on his back, hurtles through a decathlon’s worth of mixed emotions with the goofy, frantic charm of a Cary Grant who knows that, when the hourglass runs out, he’ll turn back into Woody Allen.
Such a transformation wouldn’t faze Lily Tomlin, who has revived her 1985 solo show, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, to as much admiration as laughter. Though Tomlin avers at the start that she worries about everything, it’s hard to believe, watching her turn herself, pitch perfect, into one after another of these dozen tenuously related characters. You get the feeling that, given a workable page or two of script, there’s nothing she couldn’t turn herself into, from an ironing board to Immanuel Kant. It’s unfair to critics, who love drawing similitudes; the hard part, after watching Tomlin at work, is to think of someone she doesn’t resemble. Every now and then Jane Wagner’s script hits a faded patch, when its age reveals its cautious way of kidding little targets (like the having-it-all feminist wife) while dodging the big questions behind them, but this never hampers the intensity of Tomlin’s presence, or the authoritative clarity of her immersion in each role.
In its way, Tomlin’s salute to human complexity and hopelessness—as explained to researchers from outer space by a homeless bag lady—constitutes the contemporary Book of the Dead that John Moran’s hour-long media display at the Public Theatre aspires to be. Moran’s piece, in triptych form, is a cosmic pun: Both the funerary papyri left in ancient Egyptian tombs, containing charms for use in the afterlife, and the basic scripture of Tibetan Buddhist monks are known as “the book of the dead.” Accordingly, Moran’s piece opens with an excursus on ancient Egyptian religion, and closes with a slightly more elaborate explanation of Buddhist belief in the circular trap of reincarnation and how to escape it. The middle and longest section features life on Earth (a/k/a Downtown) as it’s lived today: a few insignificant moments viewed close-up, with their intersecting elements seen first as single units, then layered on each other; lengthy gaps between them are filled with full-stage projections of parody TV commercials.
This isn’t stupid, except for the commercials, and within the limits of Moran’s maddeningly restrictive method, it’s skillfully done. Its two problems are, first, that the overall effect is pathetically desultory, and, second, that Moran’s tactics, like his material, are hopelessly familiar. No doubt a Zen monk would find it overpoweringly meaningful; for those unused to meditation, sitting in a theater enduring a brief hour’s barrage of projections, taped voices, and mechanically scurrying humans produces no revelation. (In this context, the mock commercials—easy targets easily dismissed—are a particular waste of resources.) The minute scraps of reality Moran stages are also hardly worth digging through when so many multimedia and performance artists, most notably Meredith Monk, have been there before him. Moran’s latter-day insistence on having everything electronified looks pallid and robotic next to Monk, whose most elaborate structures are always built on organically human sounds and gestures. With her work, no matter how outré, you get a living experience; with Book of the Dead, you only come away thinking how much that hour must have cost somebody.