The 20th century, you might say, was when art learned how not to tell a story. Quibblers may respond that art knew that trick long before—did you ever try to read an Elizabethan novel? But when it comes to doing things systematically, modernism is the starting point of all anti-narrative, non-narrative, subverted narrative, and every other post-coherent approach you can name. People still love stories, and want them clearly told, but this eternal truth is only beginning to dawn on the armies of international academics who put theory ahead of artistry. No doubt they’ll work out an excuse for getting back to storytelling in due course; meantime, our cultural life is cluttered with events in which the clutter of not telling the story comes close to smothering the story itself.
Still, clutter can have its charms; what was lethal for the Collyer brothers can give flea-market shoppers a few amusing hours without serious injury. Carl Hancock Rux’s Talk, for instance, is a sort of dramatic flea market of recent cultural history, with some first-quality items scattered among its odd and redundant bits of intellectual bric-a-brac. Hancock Rux’s starting point is a panel discussion dedicated to the forgotten works of a (fictional) artist of color named Archer Aymes, whose oeuvre consists of one notable short novel and one experimental film version of same which he may or may not have completed. Everything else we learn about Aymes, from the four panelists who knew him personally, and from their two interruptive interlocutors, who didn’t, is subject to dispute, including both his age and his ethnic makeup. The young Moderator, who has brought the panel together because of the spiritual kinship he feels with the narrative voice of Aymes’s novel, grows increasingly perplexed, estranged, and angry, till he finds himself reliving—or do I mean re-enacting?—the act of violence that terminated Aymes’s career.
That action, which involved the destruction of a rare collection of ancient Greek amphorae in the “Museum of Antiquities” where the panel discussion is supposedly taking place, provides the pretext for the play’s second and third layers of cultural detritus. The story of Aymes’s journey from aspiring writer to culture hero to lunatic destroyer is meant to parallel the myth of Pentheus’s destruction at the hands of his mother, Agave, because of his refusal to worship Bacchus. (Aymes’s novel is titled Mother and Son.) And in questioning the world, which refuses to understand his purposes, Aymes becomes a Socratic thinker, whom even his disciples fail to comprehend fully. The four squabbling panelists are named Phaedo, Crito, Meno, and Ion; they pass the wine jug around often enough to suggest that the word symposium is being used here in the literal Greek sense of “drinking party” as well as in the sense more common in our own time.
Between the uncontrollable instincts of the tragic myth and the Platonic vision of unattainable ideals, however, Hancock Rux has strewn all the rubble of our collective memories, trying frantically to make sense of movements and upheavals past. Breton and Buñuel, Genet and Ginsberg, Adrienne Kennedy and Jack Kerouac—virtually everyone who had any effect on New York in the latter half of the last century gets dragged into the mix, along with 50 years’ worth of issues, venues, attitudes, and anecdotes. For those, like me, who have lived through at least a few decades of the miscellaneous debris ingested by Hancock Rux’s vacuum-cleaner mind, the evening is often as much fun as being handed a trunkful of memorabilia to paw through. If you don’t know who John Bernard Myers was, and don’t see why the notion of Norman Mailer and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. vituperating at each other over a novel of negritude is funny, you’d probably be better off at home reading Dawn Powell.
Because his digressions are so much more to the point than the mythic paradigm he’s trying to construct, Hancock Rux has not really solved his play. Archer Aymes is too transparently a pretext for everything else, and the Moderator’s obsession with him too impertinent an interference with the fact-finding mission that ought to be at the drama’s core. Nor are these the only problems with the script’s elaborately fractured context, which is echoed —often gorgeously, but too often excessively—in the glittering, shadow-shifting ornateness with which Marion McClinton has staged the Foundry Theatre’s production.
McClinton makes sure, fortunately, that a zestful spirit stays alive inside his Bertoluccian pictorialism. James Himmelsbach tends to belabor the role of Aymes’s debunking biographer, and Reg E. Cathey, as a jazz legend, lacks a vocal instrument to match his arrestingly ferocious presence, but the rest of the cast is about as good as it can get, taking full advantage of Hancock Rux’s juicily flowing words. John Seitz as an oleaginous celebrity-chaser, Maria Tucci as an imperious diva of avant-garde film, Karen Kandel as a puckish performance artist who trashes every piety, and most of all Anthony Mackie, lofty in desperation and in rage as the hapless Moderator, make a powerhouse quartet of a kind that doesn’t usually play flea markets.
The Elephant Man is old goods—almost a quarter-century old now—but Sean Mathias’s new production of this tale from late Victorian history goes to extraordinary lengths to look shiny and techno-contemporary. Santo Loquasto’s set, its upper limit demarcated by a rectangle of fluorescent lights, suggests a computer parts warehouse; the underscoring, by Philip Glass, suggests that programmers are busy there, building the next generation of PCs. Under James F. Ingalls’s harsh lighting, most of the performances are cold, hard, and one-dimensional, pushing the play’s sardonic didacticism into the foreground. Like most of the last century’s tributes to the glory of industrialism, it’s a Great Leap Forward in exactly the wrong direction. If you remember the last New York production at all, you’re sure to despise this one; if you’ve never seen the play before, you’ll merely wonder what all the fuss was about back then.
What gave Jack Hofsiss’s 1978 production its depth and excitement, of course, was the dynamic tension of its relations to the text. Without concealing the cynicism of Bernard Pomerance’s script, it shaped its performances to give the evening a Victorian roundness and compassion that made the whole add up to a more complex sum. Merrick, the malformed hero, rescued from a miserable life of sideshow exhibition to become a permanent boarder in a hospital where the upper class could stare at him for free, was still a problematic figure in a prurient world, but there was a cosmic sense of pity in the performance for him, for his ambitious rescuer, and for all the characters whose motives were all so chillingly and unnervingly mixed. Until last week, the script’s clever but snide edginess had slipped my mind; what stuck there were the three-dimensional figures embodied by Phillip Anglim, Carole Shelley, and Kevin Conway.
Mathias’s cast does nothing to dislodge them, though I suspect my memory will have to make room, in a side compartment, for Billy Crudup’s sincere and thorough reading of Merrick. If he lacks the pain and pathos that Anglim brought, he offers instead a sweet self-reliance that’s closer to human emotion than anything else in this production. Rupert Graves’s “pushing young particle” of a doctor, who shouts and bullies, especially when telling others to keep calm, suggests an aggressive bank clerk rather than a surgeon in ordinary to the Crown Prince. Similarly, it’s impossible to imagine Kate Burton’s glib, chipper Mrs. Kendal lasting five minutes on the Victorian stage, much less staying a popular favorite for four decades. (Burton does have one great moment, when she’s obliged to take Merrick’s misshapen right hand, and she lets us sense but not see the shudders she’s suppressing.) But it’s hard to blame the actors: Mathias’s staging tends to remove both grace and sense from every moment; typically, in the climactic dream sequence, he puts the focus on Merrick, who has all the lines. Of course, the person whose reactions we should be watching is Treves, the surgeon, whose nightmare this is. But Mathias, like many British directors, seems to think human drama much less interesting than the distractions of an illustrated lecture. His brand of contemporary clutter is too pallidly predictable for my taste.
In this pileup, I have no space for the show I enjoyed most last week: That’s the Ticket!, which died on its pre-Broadway tour in 1948 and is only now getting a New York concert premiere from the enterprising “Musicals Tonight!” series. Julius and Philip Epstein’s script merges A Connecticut Yankee with Born Yesterday; Harold Rome’s songs add a dash of syncopated Offenbach; and an original cast alumnus, the beloved clown George S. Irving, has a high old time in the comic lead. Even debris was better back then.