Funny that respectable farm folk should name their town “Thief River.” These days, even Hell’s Kitchen, where Lee Blessing’s play is being performed, calls itself Clinton. And these stiff-backed, northern Midwesterners are no easygoing Manhattanites. At the play’s start, it’s prom night, 1948, and two high school boys are in love. One of them, Gil, has just been beaten up by the school homophobe, and has retaliated by getting a gun and shooting two fingers off his attacker’s hand. Gil’s lover Ray, more cautious in every respect, is putting him back in order when an unexpected intrusion occurs—one of several that turn Thief River awry, weighing down its serious study of a problematic relationship with the elaborate and sometimes dubious baggage of a thriller.
Like the boy lovers, divided by inner hesitation as well as external taboo, Blessing’s play often seems to be, not a single statement, but alternating halves of two contradictory ones—a division complicated by his having divided his characters into three. The deceptive opening scene is not the beginning of Ray and Gil’s time together but its end: Their next two meetings will be 25 and 48 years later, respectively. Three actors play each of the two roles; each also plays a third party whose presence disrupts the relationship, under increasingly improbable circumstances. To top off the confusion, the three scenes are fragmented, intercut in jumbled sequence, occasionally linked with narration. Figuring out what’s going on in Thief River is only the first step in decoding it. Rich with feeling and dense with implied, conflicting ideas, the evening is also pricked throughout with thorny questions that make even its best intentions dubious. It’s a play that celebrates the romance of homosexuality while at the same time implying that it’s only an arguable choice at best.
The chain of accidental interventions that starts in the first scene shapes the two boys’ future: Ray stays in Thief River, inherits his grandfather’s farm, marries, has a son, and almost manages to retire as a respected prominent citizen. Gil, compelled to leave town, heads for the Twin Cities, where he leads an out life with a succession of unfulfilling lovers. Ray writes to Gil every week for 25 years; Gil writes back until Ray, about to be married, asks him to stop. After the events of the second scene, the one-sided correspondence continues in reverse, with Gil writing to Ray, who declines to reply. The third scene, set in 2001, brings the opening scene’s events some cautious resolution.
The extreme romanticism of this story—the love that only spoke its name in private correspondence for 53 years—is vitiated by the questions that crop up in its telling. Why can’t one or both men surrender this obsessive clinging to adolescent memories? If the feeling’s so intense and so mutual, why can’t there be some way around the ornate barriers the coincidence-laden plot puts up? If Ray can sneak out to a bar for a quick trick, why can’t he arrange an equally quick clandestine meeting with Gil, whose adult occupation (writing travel articles) gives him ready mobility? The pivotal middle scene is set just in the era when sprawling urbanization and the swallowing of small farms by huge techno-combines would tempt Ray to give up his frustrating life. At the very least, it’s puzzling that he’s apparently raised his son (a significant offstage figure) to be a violent homophobe. The puzzle’s heightened by Blessing’s view of the region’s hostility toward homosexuals as a uniform blank wall. No one would deny that violent bigotry of every kind breeds in the northern Midwest. At the same time, the region has a long history of sheltering and supporting nonconformists of every stripe, including the sexual. The rigid social picture Blessing paints, abetting the play’s tilts toward melodrama, detracts from its twisty, complex, human side: One finally wonders if the rigidity isn’t simply in Ray’s mind, the way the myth of the seemingly unchanging farm town seems to have lodged in Blessing’s.
Ray’s mind, of course, is the script’s most mysterious realm. Gil, whose impulsive actions cause the dramatic crisis in each scene, is emotionally transparent; Ray’s motives are opaque. This stems from a fact we learn just after the opening scene: Ray’s father, who has come back from World War II weighed down by some dark emotional burden, has built a new house on the farm and, the night after finishing it, has killed his wife and himself. Ray has escaped only by not being home at the time. This trauma, which hovers over the remainder of the piece, is mentioned once or twice, but its effect on Ray is never explored. No one ever lives in the house, which Ray nonetheless maintains; the scene of his three encounters with Gil, it becomes the symbol of their unfulfilled relationship, and also of its antithesis: One implication, never mentioned but nonetheless present, is that Ray’s father’s violence has come from his believing that Ray’s sexual nature will prevent him from becoming man of the house in turn. Another—which might explain Ray’s dogged devotion—is the thought that the boys may have been together the night of the murder, that Ray’s love for Gil has literally saved his life. These possibilities drift through the dense haze just beneath the play’s bright, snappish surface. If it doesn’t make for a fully realized work, it certainly leaves a troubling aftereffect.
Part of it comes from Mark Lamos, whose beautifully sculpted production has an extra edge of involvement not always visible in his recent work. With particularly strong aid from Jess Goldstein’s cunningly keyed costumes and lighting designer Pat Collins’s lush range of sunshines and shadows, Lamos evokes the world around as well as inside the empty house. His six-member cast, all strong, is nearly always exactly on the mark; I particularly liked Gregg Edelman and Neil Maffin as the middle Ray and Gil, and Remak Ramsay as both the outrageous old Gil and Ray’s crusty father-in-law. Whether I actually like Thief River I don’t know, but a play that annoys me into giving it this much space must have something valuable in it.
** I really wish I could say the same for Glimmer, Glimmer and Shine, a bad play that seems to have been written just above the really interesting one to which Warren Leight couldn’t quite find his way. Where Blessing loves the myth of the small town, Leight loves and unconsciously recycles urban media myths: old jokes, old tunes, old play and movie scenes. His wandering pen lapses into them all, after which he has to scramble to turn his recyclings to some original use. His worst slip here is to invent a youthful hero and heroine who fall in love, not realizing that they may be half-brother and -sister: The three title characters were jazz trumpeters in the 1950s; when one of the Glimmer brothers was away on a gig, his girlfriend took up with Shine, and soon found herself pregnant. This would leave Shine junior (a trombonist) and the well-brought-up Miss Glimmer in the same position as Frank and Vivie in the “sensation scene” of Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession; having stumbled into the situation, Leight has to waste much of his second act explaining his way out of it.
Not that there’s much of interest either in the youthful Glimmer-Shine affair, since both characters are generic to the point of stereotype, or in the parental version, of which the one scene we get is almost a parody of its film-noir ancestors. The whole thing’s only a carpentered excuse to explain the long estrangement and deathbed reunion of the now aged Glimmer brothers, one of whom has deserted jazz and junk to become a textile tycoon, firmly under the thumb of his scheming, ambitious wife. The other Glimmer, meanwhile, has stuck to jazz, devolving into an alcoholic, drug-sodden wreck with a bum ticker and a wisecracking tongue.
How Glimmer 1 (Brian Kerwin) loosens up and gets back to his youthful dreams under the tutelage of Glimmer 2 (John Spencer) ought to be the play’s substance, but Leight can’t resist drawing on the heavy store of media anecdotage he carries, so that the script becomes a stage equivalent of “My Most Unforgettable Character,” jazz edition. This gives Spencer the chance to have a high old time twinkling his eyes, cocking his sardonic grin, spitting out apothegms in his gravel voice, and strutting his bandy-legged strut, even when his character’s under a respirator in an IC ward. He gives a glorious display, but it really would be more fun to see him play an actual dramatic role. Kerwin, meantime, hardly has anything to do except come on unpleasant and uptight, and then come on somewhat less unpleasant and uptight. Seana Kofoed and Scott Cohen fight their baseless roles gamely, but with diminishing results. More’s the pity, since director Evan Yionoulis has put them all in a handsome environment: another of Neil Patel’s subtle, elegantly understated sets; apt, puckish costumes by Candice Donnelly; evocative lighting by Donald Holder; and doubly evocative music, by Evan Lurie. Now if Leight could only see past the glitter of his own mythologizing.