Entirely by coincidence, this week the East Village offered reviewers a look at two opposing ways to simplify theater by leaving out certain elements. Both ways have their virtues: If I rate one as superior to the other, it’s strictly on a case-by-case basis. This time around, an old play done in a fresh new way feels contemporary, while a new play done in a relatively traditional manner comes off as all too old and familiar. But that may be inevitable when the theater starts to explore the art of omission: The audience has to fill in the resulting gaps with its own ideas, which may not be to the artists’ liking.
Tad Mosel’s All the Way Home, adapted from James Agee’s posthumous novel A Death in the Family, is a play almost half a century old, a “prestige” success (meaning it won prizes but didn’t make money) done back then in a wholly naturalistic manner. Transport Group’s new production of it, staged by artistic director Jack Cummings III, is performed on a stage bare except for two chairs and eight miniature houses. Anne Washburn’s The Internationalist, a work initially developed last year by the Civilians and now staged by Ken Rus Schmoll at the Vineyard, may have minimalist settings but uses them to evoke real places. While the script is full of intentionally undefined and unexplained matters, Schmoll’s stage is crowded with just the kind of naturalistic objects Cummings leaves out: papers, files, telephones, glassware. Result: In All the Way Home, the tension between Mosel’s lavishly specific script and the empty, abstract space in which the cast mimes everything from meals to automobiles gives the event an emotional jump start, while the constant busy-busy with real objects on The Internationalist‘s stage makes Washburn’s reluctance to impart information seem more like a misstep than an artistic choice. You leave feeling that something that might have made the play of interest has been left out, while All the Way Home‘s omissions, having made your imagination an active participant, turn out to be enhancements.
All the Way Home is a play many people dote on; it touches, with gentle effectiveness, a wide range of emotional buttons. Based on Agee’s memories of his childhood in Tennessee, scion of an educated elite barely one generation removed from the region’s hardy, illiterate mountain folk, it maps his parents’ marital conflict and that conflict’s dissolving in the trauma of his father’s abrupt, early death. The incompatibility is one of mores and religions (he Protestant-agnostic, she devoutly Catholic) as well as of a sometimes wavering affection. Cannily, Mosel paints in both sets of in-laws to suggest some of the rift’s sources, as well as showing how both husband and wife struggle, differently, to bridge it. The results are humane but unsparing, full of feeling but skillful at dodging sentimentality. The couple’s son is the focal point (Cummings has gotten a beautiful performance out of eight-year-old Chandler Frantz in this grueling role), but Mosel virtuously eschews both the tear-jerking and the cheap laughs that children provide in more cornball American works. The son is, in effect, this play’s Tom Wingfield; the characters’ seeming reality has been refracted through the adult recollections he is still too young to formulate. (The text for Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, probably the most moving piece in all American vocal music, comes from the prose poem Agee affixed as a prologue to his novel.)
The slow, languidly ceremonious pace of Cummings’s production, with its carefully demarcated walks through invisible rooms, gives the event a hieratic air; this is realism with a touch of Robert Wilson in it. If that sometimes drags down actions meant to be speedy, it also supplies a cosmic quality—destiny has conspired to destroy Mary Follett’s marriage—that fits the script, in which Thornton Wilder is evoked but never mimicked. Patrick Boll, at 6′ 4″ towering over the others as the doomed husband, infuses the role with emotionally towering feelings as well; Monica Russell, in the much longer and more demanding role of his wife, regrettably pushes and strains to match his quiet intensity. The rest range from passable to excellent: John Braden, Alice Cannon, Corinne Edgerly, and Tom Ligon turn in particularly stylish sketches of family members, while Barbara Andres, as the wife’s obstinately loving aunt, glows with the warm solidity of volcanic rock.
There’s some excellent acting in The Internationalist too, but the blankness at the script’s core makes it look like much ado about nothing. The post-Pinter era has seen this routine many times: An American businessman, doing unspecified work in some unspecified foreign city, keeps colliding with the mysterious behavior of his foreign colleagues, constantly thrown by their lapses into their incomprehensible native language and their even more disconcerting remarks in English. The dumb-American joke gets awfully wearisome, as well as unrevelatory; Zak Orth works up unhelpful frenzies trying to animate this chump abroad. His colleagues, not needing to make sense, perform much more freely and appealingly, particularly Annie Parisse, Nina Hellman, and Gibson Frazier. Washburn’s language has considerable flair, and she writes delightfully convincing gibberish; she might write a notable play if she ever decides to let the audience know what it’s about.