Theater archives

In the Wake, Middletown, and Scottsboro Boys Enter the Discomfort Zone


We live in disconcerting times. We know that our national politics have gotten out of kilter, but when voting we apparently look for ways to make them worse. Our economy’s in turmoil, but our alleged economic leaders (a/k/a the rich) seem committed to making it a total disaster. Culturally, we’re blessed with more and better assets than almost any other nation, yet seemingly hell-bent on overlooking, squandering, or destroying them. We’re at the best of times and the worst of times, facing, in a new century and a new millennium, the end not only of our hegemony, but of a whole phase in our history.

In such a transitory, disorienting period, art naturally gets unhinged; right choices seemingly no longer exist. Artistically as well as morally, all of life becomes guesswork. Lisa Kron’s In the Wake (Public Theater) comes first this week because it’s the only recent work I’ve seen that makes our time’s indeterminacy its subject. Kron’s characters are two couples, one hetero (Marin Ireland and Michael Chernus) and one lesbian (Susan Pourfar and Danielle Skraastad), longtime East Villagers, heirs to the area’s old-left tradition, who, in the crumbling time after Bush’s theft of the 2000 election, watch their personal world fall apart without fully understanding why or how. That the life alterations that break up their happy enclave have no literal connection to the nasty political shenanigans outside can’t quiet their suspicion that something underhanded has been done to them.

This suspicion, rarely voiced but always in the air, is In the Wake‘s most striking quality. Kron tries to focus it through brief monologues that Ellen (Ireland), the work’s central figure, speaks between scenes. Meant to serve as pedal points in the fugal whirl of life around her, they tend instead to reiterate what’s already clear from the scenes themselves. And the story those scenes tell, traditional in substance and conveyed through traditional naturalistic means, never quite rises to the bigness Kron wishes it to convey.

Ellen, career-driven but domestically content with her lovingly laid-back male partner, gets rocked by unexpected passion when her burgeoning fame draws a lesbian artist (Jenny Bacon) across her path. Similar career shifts remove the gals downstairs from the familial foursome the two couples have built up, and cause tribulations in the life of Ellen’s closest friend (Deirdre O’Connell), who’s struggling to nurture a foster daughter (Miriam F. Glover). By the end, the isolated spot in which Ellen monologizes has become an objective correlative for her life, its isolation a dark mirror of the era’s everybody-out-for-themselves politics.

Kron’s intelligence and the scrupulous truthfulness of her dialogue, beautifully served in Leigh Silverman’s stately paced but always vivid production, keep the familiar situations fresh. What they can’t do is transcend the familiarity. That would require different artistic tactics, of the kind Kron and Silverman employed so inventively in Well. The transcendence we do experience comes from the acting, all first-rate. Ireland’s febrile vulnerability has never been so well employed; Chernus turns laid-back into heartrending with magical ease. And if you only know O’Connell as the determinedly perky group leader of last year’s Circle Mirror Transformation, better brace yourself for the bleak power she unleashes here.

Where Kron unleashes heartfelt straightforwardness to test our uncertain world, Will Eno’s Middletown (Vineyard Theatre) tries to strategize the uncertainty into its text, trapping itself in its own cleverness as a result. Eno’s title may echo that of a famous 1940s sociological study, but his script leans toward being a postmodernist Our Town, its realities carefully left blank and every resident granted an Emily Webb­–style philosophic streak. Birth, alienation, despair, and death mark the characters’ lives, a cycle that seems pure pointlessness, unlike the incomprehensible but needful destiny of Wilder’s Grover’s Cornerites.

Wilder kept factual details to a minimum so all audiences could perceive Our Town as their own; Eno’s more hipsterish attitude sees every town as Nowheresville. Stripped of all its specifics, its social intercourse reduced to threadbare misconnections, his Middletown is an objective correlative for the void, varied only by an occasional cry of desperation. Watching this grim picture slither through time, at the somber pace of Ken Rus Schmoll’s production, would hardly seem a theatrical experience at all if not for a castful of top-quality actors, notably Heather Burns and Linus Roache, who get the strongest emotional material and handle it unerringly. Eno’s quest for cool goes so far as to distance him even from his distancing devices; heaven forbid we should think he was actually trying to say something.

Scottsboro Boys (Lyceum Theatre), the Kander & Ebb musical that has moved uptown from the Vineyard, displays, for different reasons, a similar diffidence about what it’s saying. The horrific slice of history it handles seems to have been chosen because it fit the pattern of earlier Kander & Ebb musicals (Cabaret, Chicago) that treated grim subjects with mocking irony. Regrettably, history doesn’t let itself get mocked so easily. Sally Bowles and Roxie Hart were fictional characters. Haywood Patterson and the eight other young black men who were dragged through endless trials and agonizing years of Alabama prisons, thanks to a wholly baseless charge of rape, were not only real but loomed gigantically in national thought, and provoked far-reaching historic effects.

The songwriters and their librettist, David Thompson, sensed this sufficiently to frame the show with one such reverberation as if that could make the facile irony of the rest—the story is told as if by a blackface minstrel troupe—permissible. This stratagem fails because the juxtaposition defuses both gestures, just as the minstrel-style heartiness defuses the historical agony. You can sometimes please people by shocking them, but trying to please them and offend them at the same time achieves neither. The pity is that so much genuine talent was involved: Director-choreographer Susan Stroman scores with several effective numbers, at least two of the songs will probably linger, and the superbly able cast puts its whole heart into this parade of heartless poses. But even a brief glimpse at the historical facts—try the University of Missouri (Kansas City) Law School’s excellent website on the case–reveals the show as merely a housefly on History’s massive stone face.