It’s clear now: The 21st century exists mainly to drive playwrights crazy. Playwriting, after all, involves finding the sense of things. A playwright struggles to cram a coherent vision of the world into the limited space of one theatrical evening. The more extravagantly disparate the world gets, the tougher the cramming job becomes. No wonder plays by intelligent writers increasingly look like overpacked suitcases, ready to burst open in transit. It’s impossible for even the tidiest packer to be orderly with so many matters, of such varied shapes and sizes, demanding inclusion.
Craig Lucas’s Prayer for My Enemy (Playwrights Horizons) seems to have exploded open before the journey even starts. Lucas has always had a somewhat combative relationship with dramatic form, like a guy who hates packing so much he has to make a game of it to get it done. His fans go in expecting any baggage he carries to be full of hidden surprises. Prayer for My Enemy offers a whole trunkful, including a character who seems irrelevant to the action until it all turns out to be about her, and a system of inner thoughts spoken aloud that recalls O’Neill’s Strange Interlude. He focuses on a family burdened with a roster of issues that could keep Oprah booked for the next decade, and one so fragilely bonded that calling them “dysfunctional” would seem a compliment. Nobody could accuse this playwright of skimping on his materials.
Whether he might have put them in better order is a different question. The combination of our wildly fragmented world and our theater’s economic need for a tight dramaturgic focus poses a challenge to every playwright. Lucas, bravely independent-minded, makes it that much harder for himself: He’s fascinated by contradiction. Perturbed about Iraq, he looks at why U.S. soldiers enlist and even re-enlist; concerned with gay identity, he explores what makes bisexuality and parenting appeal to men with same-sex leanings.
Though inherently dramatic, contradiction doesn’t always merge readily with other elements. Oedipus freed Thebes from the Sphinx but, being who he was, brought a plague in its wake: contradiction. To compound matters by making Oedipus, say, a wife-beating substance abuser with pedophilic tendencies, would only clutter the narrative. In a sense, this is what Lucas does. The wounded soldier who hates the war but re-ups, from a mixture of honorable and murky motives, makes a fascinating and troubling figure by himself, needing only a strong story to move within. The elaborate environment Lucas builds around him—12-stepping bipolar father, passive-aggressive enabling mother, shaky rural family business, sister with conflicted sibling attitudes, autistic nephew (unseen), new brother-in-law bringing his own festoon of problems—supplies only a fascinating clutter of distractions. The central story, such as it is, turns out not to be the one we thought we were watching, and occurs only in the last few scenes. Even then, we’re uncertain exactly why it occurred or how it connects thematically with everything else.
Lucas clearly loves these people; he didn’t create them merely as distractions. They’re thriving, perplexing parts of the world he’s trying to capture. Prayer for My Enemy often turns, like his best plays, enthralling, passionate, and articulate. But it also often feels contradictory and unclarified as it jumps almost nervously from topic to topic. What drives the evening, more than anything said or done onstage, seems to be Lucas’s struggle to find the connections that give life meaning. That his methods visibly aren’t working only makes the effort more grippingly painful. While hopelessly inchoate, the play also at times seems only a breath away from being a masterpiece.
Bartlett Sher’s production struggles in its own way, searching for a unified style in Lucas’s exploding fragments. He never evolves a workable convention for the inner-voice speeches; too often, the actors—even artists as fine as Jonathan Groff and Victoria Clark—abruptly lurch into shouting in a void. Floating TV sets and other dislocated visual elements drift inexplicably across John McDermott’s set. In this uncertain world, only Groff, steadfastly holding his character’s contradictory ground, conveys a faith that something more certain lies within the script. It may take another production, or another decade, before the rest of us come to agree.
“There’s a difference between ‘the present’ and ‘contemporary,’ ” says the Chorus (Martin Moran), introducing Too Much Memory, Keith Reddin and Meg Gibson’s new version of the Antigone story. But nobody involved seems quite clear on what that difference might be. There’s no “motorized scenery” or characters “riding motorcycles”—the Chorus’s examples of “contemporary”—but the electronic media, and a lot of today’s other realities, come into the retelling, not always harmonizing well with the ancient myth of Oedipus’ rebellious daughter and the tyrant whose family her recalcitrance destroys. The old tale’s power remains tangible; Reddin and Gibson (the latter also directed) try a variety of methods for rousing it to life. Intermittently, they succeed: Antigone’s defiance can’t lack relevance to a time that holds so much worth defying. Their partial success prods up recollections of both the craziness waiting for us outside the theater and the innumerable stabs made over the past century, by equally brave and sometimes wiser artists, at giving the myth immediacy. Laura Heisler and Peter Jay Fernandez, playing Antigone and Creon, often seem, like the authors, to be pushing at the material, as if trying to see how far into the present it will go. Unfinished, provocative, and occasionally wrenching, the result is less like catharsis than a constant ache; it doesn’t gratify, but it tells you you’re alive.
So, in its harmless way, does Beasley’s Christmas Party, a Booth Tarkington story turned into a tiny seasonal treat by director Carl Forsman’s Keen Company. It builds to its irresistibly charming climax on the outmoded assumptions that good and bad always stay true, with good usually coming out ahead—a notion neither Sophocles nor Craig Lucas would countenance. The acting’s sometimes overly earnest, but Joseph Collins carries off the impossible title role, which involves dancing an eight-person quadrille by himself, with elegant grace.