Richard Greenberg and Rebecca Gilman are two playwrights rarely invoked in the same breath. He writes bitterly sophisticated comedies, she issue-oriented social dramas. Yet both structure their work along similarly rigid intellectual lines. Grand Themes dictate their plots. In a playwriting era of low cognitive wattage, this isn’t necessarily a fault. But given Greenberg’s gift for ironic complication and Gilman’s instinct for the way our culture insidiously corrupts us, it would be nice if both writers could finally crack through the protective shells of their hyper-rationalized styles. Though one would hate to discourage the ambitious reach of their thinking, perhaps one day they’ll cut their characters a break and free them from the stranglehold of their plays’ unfailingly bright ideas.
History’s elusive yet inescapable presence drives Greenberg’s new play, Everett Beekin, a discursive look at a Jewish American family through four generations of women. As with his more polished (though equally schematic) Three Days of Rain, Greenberg calls attention to the way the present perennially misreads the past. Our knowledge of our roots is not only incomplete, but riddled with mistaken assumptions that contribute to the restive nature of the stories handed down to us.
Greenberg divides the fertile ground of Everett Beekin into two parts, a postwar immigrant phase followed by decadent millennial one. The first act takes place in the Lower East Side apartment of a Yiddish-speaking mother of three grown daughters, the youngest of whom is about to elope with a WASP determined to make a killing in California with a guy named Everett Beekin. It’s the late 1940s, and Ma (Marcia Jean Kurtz) bustles between the sickroom of her daughter Miri (Jennifer Carpenter) and the dinner table, where the family has convened for their weekly gripe-fest. Fascinated by their ailing sister’s new beau, Sophie (a pungent Robin Bartlett) and Anna (Bebe Neuwirth) grill Jimmy (Kevin Isola) with a fanatical intensity that has less to do with religion than real estate. Ma simply wants the blond boychick to “eat and go.”
The second act leaps forward to Orange County, California, in the late 1990s, where Anna’s daughter Nell (Neuwirth) and granddaughter Laurel (Carpenter) romantically entangle themselves with descendants of the eponymous Beekin. The theatrical landscape has undergone just as radical a change, transforming from a Delancey Street realism to a pink-lit Pacific no-man’s-land. Greenberg’s game involves sorting out the confusing family tree (the math of the Beekin clan alone provokes cluster headaches), but the real object is to track the ironies and misunderstandings that have accrued over the past four decades. Unfortunately, the skeinish mishigas grows tedious, in what Laurell’s visiting New York aunt (Bartlett) wittily describes as the land of Clamato juice and aggressive courtesy.
Despite the familiar setup, the first act’s story of the goy gentleman caller is far more engaging. Greenberg has good fun with the postwar banter of the upwardly mobile sisters dreaming of climbing the Long Island ladder (“We’re in Levittown for the time being, but later on, you never know”). The extended kitchen-sink scene allows him to convincingly draw out the relationships and conflicts. The sparsely staged second half, on the other hand, offers merely a rapid succession of desultory episodes, which in trying to portray the end (or at least the denial) of history succeed only in skimming California clichés. The characters are reduced to annoying mannerisms, and Greenberg’s dialogue devolves into overpunctuated, bookish prose.
Evan Yionoulis’s direction exaggerates the disparate nature of the piece—the theatrical world she conjures is as broken as the characters’ sense of history. Worse, her cast is not up to the double-role challenge, with a few of the actors offering little more than Yiddish or San Fernando Valley accents. Bartlett and Neuwirth flicker early on with human life, but their vitality is ultimately sacrificed for the author’s constructs.
Rebecca Gilman’s The Glory of Living actually predates Spinning Into Butter and Boy Gets Girl, her tough-minded “issue” dramas that had New York theatergoers debating the nature of racism and stalking, as well as the merits of the author’s plodding technique. Glory is somewhat less didactic than these later works, though it deals with equally intractable issues (pedophilia, serial killing, and poverty). Gilman’s approach, however, is more clinical—at least, that is, until her thesis about child abuse emerges in the second act.
Lisa (Oscar kid Anna Paquin in her stage debut) and Clint (Jeffrey Donovan) meet, marry, and have twins. Their love took root in Lisa’s trailer-park home, where her mother was loudly servicing men behind a curtain. Lisa, by the way, hasn’t finished puberty, and her new hubby is an ex-con with a penchant for molesting kidnapped girls. Don’t bother asking about their babies, though, as the newlyweds have enough to worry about with hitchhikers chained inside their motel room and dead bodies in dire need of disposal.
Welcome to Badlands II, where another young couple leave a trail of corpses in their erotic wake. Glory offers the same blank-eyed, nonjudgmental stare as Terrence Malick’s film. Though Gilman’s low-rent details can be damning, she never inflicts them. Nor does director Philip Seymour Hoffman, who captures the trashy surface of things with a naturalist’s gritty exactitude. The problem with the production, however, is that the cast only flatly reflects the surface—the psychological dots remain unconnected.
In fairness, Glory doesn’t much care for the Freudian aspect of things either, though the accuracy of Gilman’s writing captures more than the political quarry she’s after. Paquin deftly renders Lisa’s dead affect, neither sentimentalizing nor distorting the girl’s eviscerated soul. But she fails to link the experience of being raised by a prostitute to the murderous actions that follow. There’s never any clarifying interpretation of her character’s ability to block out what she can’t change or know. That Lisa obediently pulls the trigger (and subsequently takes the rap) for Clint is merely the fact of the play—it’s never made personally credible.
The ensemble compounds Gilman’s failure to elucidate the tragedy of her story, which is patly summed up in a final image of Lisa behind bars hitting the keys of her beloved toy piano. Clearly, the wasted human potential challenges not only our moral systems, but our theatrical ones as well.