For more than twenty years, the downtown theater ensemble known as Elevator Repair Service has staged entire novels by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner. They’ve riffed on Greek tragedies. They’ve enacted hilariously arcane legal transcripts. But until now, director John Collins and his accomplices have never worked with a living, breathing playwright. So ERS’s latest show, Fondly, Collette Richland, now at New York Theatre Workshop, is an enticing proposition.
In the interest of maximum flexibility, makers of “devised” or ensemble-created theater usually shy away from fixed texts. Their productions are three-dimensional tapestries reflecting the discoveries, inventions, and accidents of rehearsal-room collaborations, not mountings of a pre-existing script. (Critics, consequently, sometimes lament that many devised shows lack the structure a script might provide.)
Author Sibyl Kempson, on the other hand, isn’t just another playwright. Kempson writes abstract musings, nonlinear fantasias that offer her collaborators a lot of elasticity. She’s a dramatist, sure, but she builds an ensemble’s explorations into her experimental plays.
Coherent it ain’t. But then, Kempson doesn’t aim to bring order to the stage. In fact, her characters repeatedly mock the idea throughout Fondly, Collette Richland. “Please keep in mind that we plan not to have any dramatic action this evening,” the matronly Mabrel Fitzhubert advises a houseguest. “We are not seeking any dramatics.” When an ostensible audience member voices objections to the aesthetic, the company evicts him from the auditorium.
The baseline? In their suburban bungalow, surrounded by howling winds, Mabrel (Laurena Allan) and Colonel “Fritz” Fitzhubert (Vin Knight) sit down to a quiet dinner. When Local Representative Wheatsun (Greig Sargeant) rings the doorbell, they realize there are “secret logic systems” in their home. The trio finds a small door that leads into a hotel in the Alps filled with grand personages. Songs are sung. Satan and (separately) some little pigs appear. The requisite “cigarette of poetic despair” is smoked, and there’s yodeling — lots of yodeling. Eventually the party ends up lost somewhere near the Forbidden Precipice, way up in the mountains of the mind.
If you’re not hung up on making sense — as the fusty Fitzhuberts initially are — you can sit back and enjoy a handful of amusing performances among this cast of downtown stalwarts. With his signature ethereal soundtrack, Collins often carves out some moody space for Kempson’s language games. Other times, however, the wackiness drags out and it feels like the whole thing needs to be bigger, campier, and more outrageous to fulfill its own fanciful rhetoric.
As they make their way in this ever-stranger place, the Fitzhuberts can no longer ignore the many signs of a mythic order larger than themselves. As Collette Richland (April Matthis), one of the evening’s hosts, explains via her quasi-telepathic radio show: “They clung desperately to the literal at first, but they were destined to be part of something greater than the literal, greater even than the literary.” After all, this silky-voiced starlet points out, the fate of our entire civilization may depend on eclipsing fixed and predetermined meanings. Like the Fitzhuberts, in other words, we might need to go somewhere different to find out what’s possible.
Her observation makes you wonder if this production’s sometimes languorous antics might be an essential excursion.
Fondly, Collette Richland
By Sibyl Kempson
New York Theatre Workshop
79 East 4th Street