I know the theater’s a magical place, and when I’m there I sit in readiness, eager for its magic to sweep me away. But sometimes, the spell just isn’t binding. I sat through three such occasions last week, and I swear I did everything I could to meet the magic halfway. I marveled at the premise of Steve & Idi, I laughed at the farcical frenzies of Boeing-Boeing, and I got intrigued, a little, by the intrigues of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. But somehow enchantment never took hold.
This prelude is slightly unfair to David Grimm’s Steve & Idi, at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. The most egregiously flawed of the three evenings under review, Steve & Idi is also far and away the most stimulating. It shares the qualities of earlier Grimm plays: It’s daring, imaginative, smartly sardonic, flamboyant in a feverishly compulsive way—and ultimately frustrating. Grimm likes to startle audiences, not always usefully, and sometimes a hint of smugness tells you how clever he thinks he is for doing so. Both habits tend to crimp his dramatic focus, diminishing theatrical ideas that otherwise might have had a big, powerful reach.
Certainly, the outrageous premise of Steve & Idi has power potential. Alone on New Year’s Eve, battling a serious case of writer’s block, Steve, the playwright-hero (played by Grimm), gets dumped simultaneously by his agent (over the phone) and his lover (via e-mail). Suicide seems a natural next step, but no sooner has Steve started to gulp down the pills than the ghost of Idi Amin Dada (Evan Parke) crashes through his window, demanding Krispy Kreme doughnuts, fealty, and a play that glorifies his reputation, to be written by Steve in the next three days—or else.
Ghosts who crash through windows and scarf up junk food? This is as amusing as it is self-contradictory. Grimm squeezes as much fun, and as much horror, as he can out of it, but seems stalled about turning the situation into action. While we watch Steve destroy his other onstage relationships, with a trick picked up online and two writer colleagues battling their own troubles, the transaction between the Butcher of Uganda and his chosen bard remains more setup than payoff.
Unlike other playwrights who’ve mocked their own plights onstage, most recently David Henry Hwang in Yellow Face, Grimm resists having his hero concede his vulnerability. From a long, coldly ferocious monologue imagining an extreme revenge on his faithless lover, we can infer that Steve has learned through contemplating Idi’s crimes to confront his own capacity for violence. But we never see him acknowledge the fact, so that the end, when Idi’s nightmare presence dwindles and Steve goes back to work, feels pat and unconvincing.
Eleanor Holdridge’s production, a shade raw and noisy, fits the raw, often raucous tone of the script. Grimm handles his own lines with understandable ease and, gratifyingly, with no self-conscious smugness; Parke, though tending to shout, gets cheery grotesque comedy and startling flashes of dignity from the dictator’s role; Michael Busillo supplies a delicious cameo as the mush-brained online trick. Steve & Idi doesn’t leave you feeling let down; it leaves you waiting for the excellent play Grimm hasn’t written yet.
What you’re waiting for through most of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, as revived by the Roundabout, is for the intrigue to wind itself out so that you can go home. I’ve never thought Laclos’s 1783 novel an ideal candidate for dramatization; it has the maddening clockwork balance of an erotic crossword puzzle. Laclos’s other major work, a 1786 study of how to build or topple siege fortifications (he was a military engineer by profession), would probably be just as entertaining onstage. Christopher Hampton’s adaptation skillfully honors Laclos’s story until the very end, when he lets Madame de Merteuil escape the punishment the novelist arranged for her. But a skillful adaptation doesn’t make it any easier to sustain interest in a full-evening work where everyone’s either evil or stupid.
Appealing, subtle performances might (and, in the original production, did) give the bare mechanism some layers of texture, but forget about that with director Rufus Norris in charge. Siân Phillips and Kristine Nielsen supply a little charm in secondary roles that strike one note each, and Laura Linney, as Merteuil, sends out arrestingly dark signals while maintaining a glossy, formal tone that’s closer to the work’s authentic atmosphere than anything else onstage. But Norris reduces the young victims to drab monochromes, and Ben Daniels’s Valmont, signaling every secret motive as broadly as possible, and comporting himself like a traveling salesman in a vaudeville sketch, is the show’s nadir.
One might also point out that, after decades of erotic game-playing on stage and screen (including four film versions of Laclos’s story), an old British adaptation of a second-rank French novel isn’t exactly the imperishable work a major American nonprofit theater should be reviving. Surely we can count on profit-hungry commercial producers to dig up irrelevant “properties” that come with a money-making track record attached.
That would certainly explain the reappearance of Boeing-Boeing, a ’60s French sex comedy about airline stewardesses, so irrelevant to the post-9/11 world’s travails with air travel that it now seems nearly surreal. But then, Francis Evans’s revision of Beverley Cross’s 1965 translation (a London hit but a quick flop on Broadway back then) treats the meager realities of Marc Camoletti’s original so cavalierly that surrealism becomes the order of the day. Which may explain why Mark Rylance’s hilariously cross-eyed, stammering portrayal of the rube friend who abets the chaos slightly resembles Buster Keaton, the Surrealist poets’ favorite clown. Bradley Whitford, as the rube’s Parisian-sharpie pal, displays some droll comic chops too, as does Mary McCormack, playing an (of course domineering) German stewardess. But the national stereotypes were already ancient TV jokes by the 1960s, and even with Matthew Warchus’s production tossing logic gaily aside, Camoletti’s script sags, between manic comedy collisions, into long static passages while the situation works itself out. Farce structure ran thin in the 1960s, in Paris, London, and New York alike. I guess people who need laughs urgently will find Boeing-Boeing tonic. I wish Thelma Ritter were alive to play the maid.