Theater archives

Lucas’s Singing Forest and O’Neill’s Elms Need Thinning; Accent on Youth Needs Bulking Up


“Plays and novels are not written,” Edmund Wilson once said, “by people who have everything clear in their minds.” I wish I could read Wilson’s review of Craig Lucas’s The Singing Forest (Public Theater). For here is a brilliant, adventurous playwright, carrying what seem to be all of the modern world’s unclarities in his mind, determined not only to weld them into one cohesive work but to make some strong political statement about them. Wilson made his assertion, in the late 1930s, while defending artists against leftist ideologues’ demands for political correctness in art: What could he have said in defense of a writer apparently hell-bent on serving as his own ideologue?

Set in a quasi-realistic contemporary New York, The Singing Forest is a pile of magical fables of increasing implausibility, lightheartedly piled on one another, till they begin to melt down from their accumulation. Art, love, money, family, celebrity, ethnicity, psychoanalysis, the Holocaust—Lucas has a teasing penchant for every imaginable topic, each with an agenda tied like a clattering tin can to its tail. Watching his innumerable stories dance and collide with one another can be wildly exhilarating, turning leaden only when he tries to sort them into some pattern that makes sense. You wouldn’t dare, while watching The Singing Forest, ask yourself the reasonable questions that go through your mind during any ordinary dramatic action: Its ballooning illogic only swells and drifts away as Lucas struggles vainly to anchor his floaty narratives to earth.

Start with a Viennese émigré (Olympia Dukakis), an alcoholic psychoanalyst, who conceals from her fatherless twin children all information about her past. No—start with a young man (Jonathan Groff), whom everyone thinks is gay because his name is Gray. No—maybe start with an incredibly wealthy young recluse (Louis Cancelmi), whose mother apparently murdered his father, and who therefore hires Gray to substitute for him in shopping for a shrink. Or wait—perhaps it’s better to start with the two shrinks Gray samples, one of whom (Mark Blum) steers him to the other (Rob Campbell) in order to exact an elaborate revenge for the latter’s treatment of his ex-lover (Randy Harrison). Is everything now totally unclear? Then you’re ready for Lucas’s amazing ride, which duly careens through time to sweep up Sigmund Freud (Pierre Epstein), his daughter, Anna (Deborah Offner), a phone-sex service, a closet full of Klimts, and the Starbucks where Gray’s girlfriend (Susan Pourfar) works, and where most of the non-historical characters encounter each other. “Sometimes life just is preposterous, you know?,” whines the revengeful shrink, and if that’s not a playwright’s apologia, I’m Carl Jung.

In this turmoil of interlocking stories, which regularly splurts up into either violent confrontations or door-slamming farcical mixups, the prevailing tone is, surprisingly, compassion. Lucas’s underlying notion seems to be that, in a world as terror-filled as ours, everyone needs to be forgiven everything before it all becomes much worse. If this flies in the face of reason, it’s a natural outgrowth of a narrative whose multiple strands variously rebuke common sense, history, and chronology. Like the sex-farce tone and the Holocaust subject matter, the play’s ideas and its tactics simply don’t merge. Yet their constant friction steadily produces dazzling showers of sparks, and director Mark Wing-Davey’s devoted cast achieves some mighty effects while setting them alight. Dukakis, fiercely acerbic, rides commandingly over the action; Blum and Campbell, twin icons of epic haplessness, are especially moving. Best of all is Groff, who now perfectly incarnates the Craig Lucas hero: sweetly vulnerable yet indomitably determined, venturing bravely forth, wide-eyed with terrified wonder, into the crazy world that will force him to figure out who he is.

The confusions in Robert Falls’s revival of O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms (St. James Theatre) are directorial. O’Neill’s sex-charged tragedy, one of his less overwritten works, is densely layered but tautly compressed. Falls compresses it further, cutting secondary characters who represent the outside world and penning the Cabot family inside a wall of rocks. But Falls wants too many incompatible things: This mini-Stonehenge, in which the erotic struggle of father, son, and stepmother will be fought out, also has to partake of deconstructionist chic, so Walt Spangler’s set has to feature boulders that float against the New England sky; and it has to be faithful to O’Neill’s realist vision, so the Cabot house has to float, too, while its master bedroom sprouts from a rocky cave. It’s tough trying to walk, or design, in three directions at once.

Falls shows a similarly uncertain touch with his cast. O’Neill’s dialect-laden language isn’t easy, with the twin dangers of melodramatic overstatement and moony fake poetry lying around every verbal twist; getting to the genuine poetic core of his rocklike prose takes intense effort. Brian Dennehy, as the ferocious father, comes off best, choosing a moderately naturalistic middle way through the thickets of words and hewing to it till he cuts himself a path to the character’s inner fire. Pablo Schreiber and Carla Gugino, as son and stepmom, have a harder time of it: Gugino, sexy and intense, has her emotions in place, but lets her accent and tone veer erratically; Schreiber, a slower builder, sometimes seems to be crawling across invisible rocks on his way from urban contemporaneity to O’Neill’s antique, burning intensity. He gets there—ultimately, he and Gugino make a forceful and moving couple—but it’s a long, painful climb. One can’t help thinking that a less distracted director, and a less distracting set, might have eased the journey.

No journey’s easier than the amiable, wafer-thin, mildly witty one that Samson Raphaelson’s 1934 comedy Accent on Youth shepherds us through. Raphaelson, who wrote some of Ernst Lubitsch’s best screenplays, knows just how to spice up a standard love triangle with a dash of Pirandellian self-awareness. David Hyde Pierce and Mary Catherine Garrison, in director Daniel Sullivan’s surprisingly bland production, give at least two sides of the triangle the needed sparkle, which makes for pleasantness, but not much more.

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