The three straight white male playwrights under review this week, of differing generations and from different regions, couldn’t approach playwriting more differently. Yet they tend, surprisingly, to have the same concern on their minds. All three worry about what America has become, about what seems to be a steady downhill slide from its once-glorious standards and traditions. Even if audiences share their concern, it’s striking that all three should sound the same refrain—that a rowdy and violent new play by Adam Rapp (b. 1968, Chicago, Illinois) should seem contiguous with the sedately chatty Dividing the Estate, a 1989 work by Horton Foote (b. 1918, Wharton, Texas), now getting a belated New York premiere, while both appear to echo motifs from The Dining Room, the successful 1982 work by A. R. Gurney (b. 1930, Buffalo, New York), currently receiving its first major revival from Off-Broadway’s Keen Company. Maybe it is a white male proprietary thing after all.
In all three plays, America embodies a set of principles that are more likely to be found in the past than in the degenerate present. Not that the past lacks its own turmoils. In Foote’s play, the Texas siblings waiting irritably for Stella (Elizabeth Ashley), the dowager who heads their clan, to sell their great-grandfather’s accumulated acreage and divvy up the proceeds may seem as Texan as grits’n’gravy to us Yankees, but they turn out to be descended from a mere carpetbagger, who allegedly used some shady maneuvers to buy up property after the Civil War. Such talk should be kept outside the crumbling family mansion to which Foote confines his action, but when the sibs start squabbling, they can’t resist throwing the past, as well as every present failing, in each other’s faces. It’s 1987; small Texas towns like Foote’s fictional Harrison are withering away. Once part of a row of lavish homes, the mansion now stands alone on a highway desolate except for strip malls.
Stella’s children are a fairly desolate brood, too: The eldest, Lucille (Penny Fuller), runs the house, dodging her mother’s barrage of constantly changing commands; Lucille’s son, unimaginatively named Son (Devon Abner), struggles desperately to maintain the property, which is being drained by constant demands for cash from Stella’s son Lewis (Gerald McRaney), an alcoholic with a costly fondness for gambling and underage girls, and her younger daughter Mary Jo (Hallie Foote), who pursues status and affluence in Houston, periodically swooping down, with her husband (James DeMarse) and daughters (Nicole Lowrance and Jenny Dare Paulin) in tow, to find fault with Son’s old-fashioned style of asset management.
It’s a foregone conclusion that neither Stella’s desire to hold the estate together at all costs nor Mary Jo’s eagerness to cash it in will triumph. Beautiful but tainted, the estate will end up tricking everybody, almost seeming to have a mind of its own. As Michael Wilson’s production wends its laconic way, the writing veers, eerily, from the predictable to the freshly heard and back again; the evening takes on the same maddening quality as American life itself, a schizoid blend of oh-no-not-this-again and good-grief-what-next. The performances, most of them strongly rooted in reality, glow with the dusty patina of the objects you fall in love with but can’t afford in antique stores. Fuller, Abner, Lynda Gravátt (as the no-nonsense cook), and Maggie Lacey (as Son’s quietly pert fiancée) register with particular force. Even the one persistent false note, Ashley’s staginess, has the quality of an ancient artifact, half 1880s stock-company grandeur and half the gouty Southern colonel of vaudeville sketches.
The acting in Adam Rapp’s American Sligo is strongly rooted, too, but the roles seem cut from comic-strip outlines. Clearly, Sam Shepard is Rapp’s model—sort of. Naturalistic in their point-by-point detail, Rapp’s plays strive to become allegorical comments, like Shepard’s, on American life. But Shepard’s characters are half-mythic to start with; his writing arose from a scrutiny of Abstract Expressionist and Pop Art painting. Rapp’s starting point is that most American of naturalistic genres, the dysfunctional-family play. (Shepard, who came to the genre mid-career, annexed it for his own expressionist purposes.) And like many naturalistic playwrights since Zola, Rapp views life as essentially sordid. His embodiment of America’s heroic ideals is a worn-out championship wrestler—i.e., a man whose work even his fans must view as a huge fake. Only a desperately needy nitwit could mistake a hapless lug like “Crazy Train” Sligo (Guy Boyd) for a model of righteousness, and Rapp provides one, with the nitwitty name of Bobby Bibby (Matthew Stadelmann), who turns up at the Sligo family’s dinner table, the winner of an unlikely contest that’s one of Rapp’s weakest inventions. The family runs to typical Rappian miseries: siblings who love/loathe each other, one (Michael Chernus) an Internet nerd and one a near-psycho criminal (a stunning performance by Paul Sparks); plus a dotty aunt (Marylouise Burke), sister of Sligo’s revered dead wife, whose nonstop chatter and medicated denial of the surrounding sordidness drive everyone else nuts. Things work out as badly as possible, with an expected burst of climactic violence from an unexpected source, but nothing particularly adds up. The family circumstances; the stranger’s presence; the arrival of one brother’s girlfriend at the very end as a target for familial abuse (a tactic Rapp shares with Foote); the idea that this grotty gaggle of misfits defines something about America—all are improbable.
We buy them, temporarily, because of Rapp’s two major assets here: his verbal flair and his love of actors. The play’s language, far fresher than its grimly predictable action, flies in freewheeling patterns from the lowest profanity up to high metaphysics, as if Rapp’s restless mind kept lists of extravagant nouns to be dropped in for detonative effect. The flavorsome phrases enrich the opportunities he gives his cast, as director, for boldly shaped performances.
Equally bold shaping is called for when acting A.R. Gurney’s The Dining Room, a play that’s really a sort of revue, its six actors shifting roles, eras, and generations with every scene. Gurney’s writing, heartfelt but cerebral, grasps the family structures into which Foote and Rapp slide so familiarly, and holds them up, thin-sliced, for a sort of cubist scrutiny from every imaginable angle. We see the standards society was once meant to uphold, symbolized by the outmoded grandeur of the room itself; we also see the lies, oppression, and exploitation such standards can conceal. A second hearing 25 years later reveals that Gurney’s astute inventiveness, and the economical way he makes every detail hew to his theme, have kept his double-edged tribute to the past startlingly fresh in the present. Its revue-sketch nature keeps the play from having a central dramatic motor, but its easy, intelligently modulated flow
of sharp wit and sweet sentiment, in alternating currents, makes it a delight nonetheless. Memories of the high-polished original production can’t be dimmed, but the current cast, directed by Jonathan Silverstein, seems only marginally less lustrous than their predecessors.