Expectations, as so often, are the key. I’d been unimpressed by Rebecca Gilman’s Spinning Into Butter; hearing that her next play concerned a stalker made me grit my teeth and prepare for either a high-gloss TV movie or, worse, one of those neocon upside-down tricks in which it all turned out to be the woman’s fault. But I had missed the clue. The core of Spinning Into Butter, not given full power in its slipshod production here, had been a personal issue: the racial profiling in the heroine’s heart, not the big abstract social questions the play juggled so awkwardly. Any woman can’t help but take Boy Gets Girl personally. Result: The play comes from a stronger emotional center than its predecessor, its characters are better focused and more securely rooted, and its taut sequence of scenes tells a complete story, with little glibness and no sidestepping. It has lapses and failures of detail, but the power of the overall effect makes them seem minor, where those in the earlier play kept glaring up at you. If the material sounds familiar, the treatment gives it a new, solider substance.
The first scene, a blind date, is a classically elegant piece of what magicians call misdirection. Boy, a computer nerd named Tony (Ian Lithgow), meets Girl, a young magazine writer-editor named Theresa (Mary Beth Fisher). Even if you’re prepped for the story, you think: This can’t be the guy. Sociable, well-meaning, ill at ease, a little dumb and talking too loud—this must be the other one, the dweeb who’ll become a hero in the last reel. Wrong already, as Virgil Thomson used to say just before the conductor gave the downbeat. Tony definitely isn’t Theresa’s type; to her, the blind date is the end of the affair: one dinner out, and goodbye. But Tony sends flowers. He drops by her workplace, offering to take her out to lunch; the new secretary, a chic-brained shopaholic who thinks he’s cute, mistakenly lets him into the office. As Theresa stays adamant, the frequent flowers are succeeded by increasingly hostile phone messages, filling her office voicemail, then piling up on her unlisted home number. Things rapidly turn nasty.
Gilman doesn’t manipulate the pulse-racing thrills; they simply come with the material. Often enough, she turns them into half-farcical embarrassments: Theresa’s coworkers have seen those stalker movies too, and can’t resist playing detective, defender, protective parent. Only the policewoman handling the case stays objective, offering as a bond the small comfort of practical advice, like “think about changing your church.” The play’s principal focus isn’t the thrill of the chase but its effect on the heroine. Theresa is in many ways what a contemporary, intelligent woman would like to be: good-looking, healthy, unburdened by attachments, self-reliant, independent-minded, with a job she loves. By the end, she’s become nearly a different person, not just literally (“change your name” is almost the cop’s first bit of advice) but spiritually: The whole dark underside of her individuality has come crawling out in response to the psychic battering she’s received—and without any gratuitous Grand Guignol, either. Gilman’s concern is the human cost, not the horror trip.
To add up that cost, she weighs her heroine against other women (the policewoman and the secretary), and three carefully characterized men, two sympathetic and one seemingly uncaring. The sympathizers, Theresa’s boss and a coworker, have interested-party motives, for which Gilman cannily declines to condemn these basically good souls; the uncaring fellow, a Russ Meyer-like sexploiter whom Theresa resentfully has to interview, shows that unabashed sexism has, in its brute truth, certain advantages over the polite falsities of the civilized, and even a certain gallantry. Howard Witt, pinkly wrinkled and sandpaper-voiced, makes a banquet of this role, which contains most of the script’s joy. Not that the part of Theresa is without its satisfactions: Fisher, with wonderful up-tempo assurance, gives her character a physical vividness and precision that make her crumbling doubly painful to watch. Matt DeCaro, as her doting, perplexed boss, and Ora Jones, as the not unsympathetic policewoman, are the best of her generally fine supporting cast, assembled by the late Michael Maggio, whose Chicago production has been shepherded here by Lynne Meadow; I doubt that much got lost in transit. All I disliked was the scene-change music, which tends to push the play toward the scary-movie mold.
Gilman’s play isn’t free from flaws. The magazine where Theresa works is a vague place, half New Republic and half Vanity Fair, where the editors seem to do most of the writing. More significantly, it seems to exist in a void where other journalists are concerned. That Theresa’s a loner by inclination is one thing; that she doesn’t have a network of women colleagues to whom she can turn for advice and support runs counter to common sense as well as observation. By definition people who talk to other people, journalists are as collegial as they are competitive—especially true these days of women, who’ve been learning since the ’60s that solidarity is the best tool for forcing open the doors of press rooms and editorial offices. Compared to the flaws in Spinning Into Butter, these are both small and secondary. Gilman’s faith in writing led her to see her heroine as a writer; imagining Theresa with a duller, more isolated job, say as a data processor, caught in the same situation, is almost too frighteningly easy. As if to prove that stalking’s not just a fright-night trope, while I was working on this review, a 57-year-old Brooklyn man died in a fall; he had been trying to climb into his ex-girlfriend’s sixth-floor bedroom window. She hadn’t gotten a restraining order because she didn’t take his threats seriously.
The Nazis’ threats against Jews and German democracy are taken with the utmost seriousness in Ferdinand Bruckner’s 1933 drama Race, but that, in a way, is the problem. Bruckner was a Jew so thoroughly assimilated to German culture that his response to the immediate danger of Nazism was to weave an elaborately soul-searching, Schillerian drama about it, exploring the rationales of doubters on both sides of the ethnic divide. This was a worthy but wrong tactic: By the time he was done, the doubters had been swept away, and the lines the Third Reich drew between Aryan and Jew had turned into walls, soon to enclose ghettos and ultimately death camps. The ill-timed impracticality of Bruckner’s response—like dowsing for water while your house burns down—makes his play no more than a historical curio, too late to be prophetic and too ornate to bear witness.
There may, of course, be more to it than is on view at CSC: Director Barry Edelstein’s adaptation speaks fluently, but gives us little backstory on the hero, Karlaner, a medical student who’s been rescued by his Jewish girlfriend, Helene, from a potential dropout’s life of boozing and promiscuity. There’s no explanation of why Helene, rebelling against a leisured existence with her wealthy industrialist father, thinks reforming a sot would be the road to bliss, nor, more importantly, of how Karlaner, once sober, becomes both a champion self-questioning soliloquizer and, when pressured by his buddies, switches instantly to Nazi conformity. Even if these ill-assorted elements make sense together in Bruckner’s complete text, they’d be hard to swallow on the contemporary stage, given our inevitable hindsight. As with Boy Gets Girl, we’ve seen all the scenes before; unlike Gilman, Bruckner doesn’t surprise us with the characters’ individuality.
Instead, you just feel sorry for Stephen Barker Turner, the intermittent blank panic in whose eyes probably has more to do with the guff he has to spout than with Karlaner’s emotional confusion; at any rate, he lets his loftier passages drop into a nonstop mumble. Maybe he just feels somewhat beaten down by the rest of the cast, which goes in for a loud, studied artificiality. Ronald Guttmann, as Helene’s father, and C.J. Wilson, as Karlaner’s ultra-Nazi classmate, both escape the surrounding falsity, though neither gives his role more than a credible surface reading. The surface, though, is where the production stores most of its strength: Neil Patel’s spacious rectangular set, handsomely demarcated and shadowed by Russell H. Champa’s sensitive lighting, makes a spectacularly powerful frame for Jan Hartley’s tautly composed projections. The New Matter-of-Factness, as the Weimar artists called it, hasn’t looked this fresh in decades; with a more matter-of-fact play and more truthful acting, it might have made an overpowering event. That it hasn’t done so, and that Edelstein’s own work is gravely flawed, shouldn’t in any way dampen the credit he deserves for unearthing the play and taking the risk.