Old Tales Retangled


“Unhappy is the land that has no heroes,” complains the young monk in Brecht’s Galileo. To which his wiser master replies, “Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.” Put the word “play” in place of “land” in that exchange, and you learn something about art, which mostly displays models of human disaster and failure. Certainly dramatic art does; almost all of Shakespeare’s heroes, for instance, are either murderers, failures, or both. Modern plays in which you can’t tell who’s the hero came in with Chekhov, writing under the stimulus of Ibsen, and have stayed in place, uneasily, never quite supplanted by the kind of contemporary play in which you can’t quite tell who anybody is. A handy way to watch the play that has people but no heroes melting into the kind that barely has people at all is to see on successive nights, as I did, the Signature’s revival of Lanford Wilson’s 1978 drama Fifth of July and MTC’s Kimberly Akimbo, the newest blend of familial dislocation and whimsy by the author of Fuddy Meers.

A tiny warning label should be issued with the strong recommendation to see Fifth of July. Director Jo Bonney, best known for her work with solo performers, occasionally seems to be taking the characters’ words as messages from the author. She slows the action down languidly, and at one or two moments stops it altogether, while someone delivers a significant statement. But the scene of this play is the Talley residence, once home to the wealthiest family in Lebanon, Missouri, and now occupied by its children and their circle, shell-shocked refugees from the abortively revolutionary Berkeley campus of the 1960s. Even if they believe their Important Pronouncements, which they probably do in part, the author—who wasn’t born wealthy and didn’t attend Berkeley—most likely doesn’t. Like us, he observes the action from a distance, loving the characters as they helplessly try to rescue their better selves from the mess made by their own dark sides, and realizing with a chill that what he’s notated is exactly the way in which our worser selves so often succeed in dragging us down.

Heroism, the bravery to be one’s best self, is not only one of Wilson’s themes but a topic his characters pick apart from time to time. The discussion starts with an outrageously funny Inuit folktale (authentic, as it happens), about starving Eskimos and a giant fart. The story’s downbeat ending and the moral ambiguity of its hero’s boldly vulgar action provoke a succession of critiques from the play’s characters. The tale, they complain, lacks “a saving grace.” What they don’t see is that the grace is in the act of telling: Survival is the tale’s theme, and its characters all die, but the transmission of the story itself guarantees that they survive.

Only Kenneth Talley (Robert Sean Leonard), the deceptively calm center of this whirlwind of post-’60s resentment and disillusion, has a flickering awareness of the tale’s potential meaning—enough of one, at least, to make him treat the conventional response as a joke. But then, Ken treats everything as a joke, including his own battered life. A gay radical who inexplicably allowed himself to be drafted, he’s come back from Vietnam with bad dreams, two prosthetic legs, and no particular future. His notion of heroism’s saving grace rarely extends beyond making quips like, “I may never dance Swan Lake again,” after someone has knocked him down. Apart from his crutches, his principal supports are his aunt Sally (Pamela Payton-Wright), once the youthful heroine of Talley’s Folly but now a dotty widow who talks to objects as readily as to people, and his lover Jed (Michael Gladis), a stolid horticulture-obsessed gardener, who watches over Ken like a cutting expected to regrow.

Ken’s unironizing counterpart is his sister June (Jessalyn Gilsig), the most angrily unreconstructed member of his Berkeley circle, who, steadfastly unmarried, is visiting from St. Louis with her 13-year-old daughter Shirley (Sarah Lord), whose affection-starved precocity learns its clamorous tropes from old Betty Grable flicks at her neighborhood revival house. Balancing the Talley clan is a counterforce, equally divided in its intentions and just as confused morally, consisting of the Talleys’ pal through high school and Berkeley, John Landis (David Harbour); his wife Gwen (Parker Posey), copper heiress and would-be country singer, her brain frizzed on medication and family money; and her cluelessly New Agey guitar accompanist, Wes (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), the teller of the Eskimo-fart story.

With three generations of clashing sensibilities and differing levels of disillusionment trapped in an old house, you hardly need a plot, and Wilson’s trick is to give you one that isn’t. Like the movements of the ’60s themselves, the narrative elements build up to vociferous public demonstrations and then startlingly melt away, leaving behind only a clatter of might-have-beens and a batch of puzzled people trying to pick up the pieces. At the end Ken is saved from his own worst impulses, along with the house itself, by an action that smacks more of emotional blackmail than heroism, carrying the saving grace in its most topsy-turvy form. His response to being rescued, appropriately, is, “You know you’re all going to pay for this.” The moral, if any, is rather complex: Since all friends ultimately betray you, the best friends are those who do it for your sake rather than their own.

One can’t be sure that’s the moral, though, since the friends who rescue Ken by their betrayal have motives as personal as their opponents, and Ken might be just as happy with either party winning the day. The play’s close counters the Inuit tale with a sort of future folktale, a sci-fi story taped by a speech-impaired local boy whom Ken has been teaching, in which space travelers find nothing of note in the universe, and are obliged to return to Earth, where “it was up to them to become all the things they had imagined they would find.” Including monsters, one imagines, as well as saviors.

The quietude of Bonney’s production, which steeps the play’s gaudy mix of flavors in the dry wine of retrospect, is both persuasive and slightly unnerving. Circle Rep, where Marshall W. Mason directed most of Wilson’s premieres, espoused what it called “lyrical naturalism,” which never stopped the action in a play like this from brimming over with comic speed and zest. There’s no lack of either in Bonney’s production, but there’s also no overspill; here in the belt-tightening aughts, we’re more careful to keep our naturalism within lyrical bounds. Some of the excellent performances—Moss-Bachrach’s blankly gentle Wes, Posey’s calculatingly capricious Gwen—have the feel of the originals slightly scaled down; Harbour’s tough, driving John even sounds eerily, at moments, like Jonathan Hogan’s. Others seem creatively updated: Gilsig’s June, her angular body locked in rage, suggests a streamlined Joyce Reehling, while Gladis’s Jed gives hints of the openly gay person Jeff Daniels never quite conveyed.

Only three performers put their own distinct impress on the roles. Robert Sean Leonard’s Ken is the first one I’ve seen to catch the character’s passive-aggressive tactics, using the incessant wisecracks to ward off both sympathy and hostility—and looking far lonelier than his predecessors as a result. Pamela Payton-Wright, seemingly uncomfortable in Act I (few actresses really like talking to spools of copper wire), catches Aunt Sally’s tone and tempo in Act II and runs with it, using a down-home toughness utterly unlike Helen Stenborg’s soft indomitability, but just as valid. And 18-year-old Sarah Lord catches the travails of Shirley’s addled adolescence with the professionalism of an 80-year-old skilled hand.

A teenager with a strange ailment that turns her into an 80-year-old is the heroine of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Kimberly Akimbo. This should produce enough psychological strangeness for one play, but as in Fuddy Meers, Lindsay-Abaire doesn’t stop there: The girl with the strange condition has to be surrounded by a wacky family which is a set of strange conditions, and haunted by a schoolmate attracted to her strange condition. Result: The heroine disappears, left with nothing to do but react to the surrounding wacky chaos, so that Marylouise Burke, who plays her, can only exploit her appealing quirks until they harden into mannerisms—which they were already starting to do in Fuddy Meers.

The pity of it is that Lindsay-Abaire, when not trying so hard to write wackily, can often write very well: The brief boy-girl scenes here, and some of the father’s resentful outbursts, have both charm and the ring of truth. But David Petrarca’s production, from its sunburst clock to the strip-mall flicker of its scene change lights, abets the wackiness so heavily that truth, charm, and even acting disappear. When an actress as good as Jodie Markell, or one as gamely promising as Ana Gasteyer, runs so quickly into monotony, you know something’s gone wrong. John Gallagher Jr.’s rendering of the boy, and a few of Jake Weber’s blasts as the father, are the closest the performance gets to earth. Otherwise, these space cadets are still out looking for the saving grace that Wilson found long ago.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 4, 2003

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