Theater archives

Three New Productions Tackle Color Lines


It isn’t fair, of course. If history really is the nightmare from which we’re trying to escape, we ought to be able to rewrite it in the theater. I mean, isn’t that exactly what artists do in their work—rewrite their nightmares? But history has the annoying quality of being irrevocable. It’s always there, an obstacle in your path to the future, or in your surroundings, or in your head. You can rethink it, you can strive to get beyond it, but try to rewrite it and alarm bells are sure to go off somewhere.

All last week, going to the theater, I felt history sticking in my craw, where it can’t be swallowed or spat out; at best you can only choke it back. This time, as it happens, the historical preoccupation was race: Uptown there was Mike Nichols’s production of Clifford Odets’s The Country Girl, with Morgan Freeman and Frances McDormand playing a biracial couple in an era when such couples were few and hard-pressed, and in a play that, as written, bears no mark of such pressures. Downtown there was Elevator Repair Service’s deconstructive rendering of the first section of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, in which color- and gender-blind casting is among the tactics employed to move this tale of a white Southern family’s decline into an eerie realm of quasi-abstract performance art, where nothing is quite what it should be. And then, finally, there was a little easing of the nightmare with Thurgood, Laurence Fishburne’s solo performance of something that’s less a play than a series of historical signposts, made powerful onstage by the richness and subtle skill of Fishburne’s acting. There, at last, theatrics moved out of the way so history could stand proud. But it’s a rough week when you have to shove theatricality aside to feel good about the theater.

Not that Odets’s play deserves to be shoved aside. Though below his best, The Country Girl is about as intriguing as a work of the second rank can get, a quirky, oddly dour valentine to the theater and the people who inhabit it, always tormenting each other’s lives with the illusionist games they’re supposed to be reserving for the stage. Odets’s heroine (McDormand) is an anti-enabler, still loving but long since out of love with the barely recuperated wreck of a once-great actor (Freeman) whom she’s pulled up, inch by inch, from his personal pit of alcoholic self-destructiveness and mythomania. When a hotshot director (Peter Gallagher) who idolizes the ex-drunk’s former greatness bullies a wary producer (Chip Zien) into giving him the lead role in a demanding new play, things are bound to get tense. Add that the director’s painful divorce makes him first resent and then feel attracted to the alky’s embittered wife, and you have the recipe for an eccentrically built but constantly interesting play, like watching a set of steel beams being tested to see which one will snap first.

That tension seems curiously vitiated in Nichols’s production. Wonderful as it is to have Freeman back in the New York theater after far too long, neither his grace nor his power as an actor suit Odets’s hero, a flamboyant rhetorician onstage who’s a bundle of nerves off it. Where the script invites the wife to display a bleak, Strindbergian love-hate, McDormand projects only a kind of obstinate determination, seemingly cut off both from Freeman and from Gallagher. The latter’s feisty, brusque, high-energy portrayal of the director, cockily aggressive and almost childlike when he backtracks, handily steals the show, often in conspiracy with Zien’s terse, comically contorted producer, a walking fusion of outer smugness and inner panic. Far from abetting the play’s tension, the ostentatious breach of the color line in casting the two leads drains it of sense: You never see what holds these two people together, or how their marriage could have survived even 15 minutes of the world in which this play takes place. Making the marriage monoracial, either all-black or all-white, would have set the production on firmer ground.

In like manner, Elevator Repair Service has taken away the firm ground on which The Sound and the Fury is set—in this case literally, the land of the Compson family’s shrunken estate—and substituted a chic aesthetic Nowheresville that’s first piquant and then merely annoying. Notoriously dense and elliptical, the original novel’s four sections are told by four differently unreliable narrators; ERS stages the first and most thornily difficult to read, the one literally “told by an idiot,” the mentally retarded (or perhaps autistic) son Benjy. David Zinn’s attractive set, a prosperous 1910s parlor, looks more Midwestern than Southern; it would do better for The Magnificent Ambersons than for this work, in which so much action takes place outside the house.

The actors rotate from role to role; Dilsey, the African-American cook whose matriarchal strength helps to hold both the Compsons’ and her own household together, is played variously by a white woman, a black woman, and a black man. (Oldsters may be tempted to mutter, “There’s a definite difference in Dilsey.”) ERS’s playing style, as problematic as the casting, rather than illuminating Faulkner’s troubled text, layers further confusion onto it: While some of the text is delivered literally, story-theater style (with the actors speaking the innumerable “he said’s” along with the dialogue), the movements and groupings onstage veer from literal gestures through stylized indications and on into irrelevances (jumpy, abstract dance sequences interrupt the storytelling).

As in earlier ERS adventures, one’s never sure whether the company means to act out the story, stylize it, take its elements apart, or even, conceivably, burlesque it. What the company thinks of Faulkner, what experience of his novel it wishes to convey, remain mysteries buried in the soft wax of its faintly campy, noncommittal style. Especially in an era that views black history very differently from educated Southerners of Faulkner’s generation, the event carries a tinge of spoofing the Southern Gothic clichés that the novelist’s less intense, less reflective successors exploited to exhaustion. What reverberated in my head as I came away wasn’t anything ERS had done, but the classic line from Ronny Graham’s merciless 1952 parody of Truman Capote: “Just then the old house gave another lurch as the termites finished the west wing.”

Nothing lurches, blessedly, in Laurence Fishburne’s performance of George Stevens Jr.’s Thurgood, a text as straightforward as the proudly jutting jaw by which Fishburne conveys his hero’s determination. Thurgood Marshall, a classic instance of the man with the right qualities in the right place at the right time, became history, and Fishburne embodies, with fire, care, and craft, the landmark moments at which he did it. Along with the joy of reliving Marshall’s historic moments, the show offers one great treat for theater lovers: the subtlety with which Fishburne shifts voice and body to play Marshall’s antagonists, benefactors, and famous coevals. His Earl Warren ranks with Francis Jue’s Bernie Jacobs in Yellow Face as the best nonwhite-to-white mimicry of the season.