American Devolution


A century of hindsight makes it easy to see how Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths, which opened at the Moscow Art Theater in 1902, presaged the revolutionary movement of 1905. With his unflinching portrayal of vagabonds, addicts, thieves, down-and-out workers, and fallen aristocrats who share a flophouse, Gorky depicted the burning discontent among the Russian underclass that fueled the imminent uprising. One can’t blame Charles L. Mee for not capturing a similar gathering force for change among the motley group of homeless people shacking up in an abandoned factory in his 1997 adaptation of Gorky’s play: For better or worse, history hasn’t provided it.

But that’s not the only reason the New York premiere of Time to Burn (presented by the young Resonance Ensemble in repertory with The Lower Depths) feels stagnant. The bigger problem is that unlike Gorky, Mee, director Leland Patton, and an uneven cast don’t offer any new or honest ways of looking at characters we seldom actually see, even if we frequently pass them on the streets of New York. Instead, they recycle unexamined clichés and stereotypes and, worse, present them in a lugubrious, self-congratulatory tone.

There’s the swishing transvestite who offers graphic descriptions of sex between men; the African American bag lady who catalogs her catch of snuffboxes, sea shells, opera glasses—”the stuff of life on earth”—and sings the occasional spiritual; the uptight Pole who has “put [his] faith in capitalism” and rails at the others for expecting handouts; the gentle old wandering Jew who carries a volume of Lenin; the mean-spirited landlord, Vinnie, who wears rubber gloves and spews invective at “you people”; Vinnie’s wife and her sister, described in the text as “Thailandese” though their names are Vietnamese and their costumes plucked off the rack on Mott Street. And so on. As the action unfolds, we learn nothing about these characters that isn’t summed up in these phrases.

Mee’s best work takes a wry look at the contradictions of the human heart and the social circumstances that shape them. It’s clear enough why he’d be drawn—like Jean Renoir and Akira Kurosawa before him—to engage in what he describes as “a conversation” with Gorky. Time to Burn provides some characteristic flashes of whimsy and sharp irony, and Mee does convey a legible world where poverty and degradation go hand in hand with the triumph of the free market. But in Patton’s plodding production, the human consequences never feel quite human.