As the Word Turns


They used to say Americans were nonverbal. But lately, there’s no escaping the floods of words. Certainly not by going to the theater, where New York, at least, seems to be more logorrheic than ever. But maybe our artists are right to dwell on words. “There are no accidents,” as somebody says in Craig Lucas’s new play, Stranger. The words we keep hearing must be either the words we need to hear or the words we want to hear—must be, anyway, in the minds of the artists who choose them. Art, that most intangible of phenomena, seems so tangible when we interact with it that people often forget it’s only a symptom, a taste of what’s currently in the air all around us. And around us, everything’s being named, mentioned, analyzed, talked through.

The suburban folk in Tom Donaghy’s The Beginning of August think everything worth a mention. Where Donaghy used to cultivate a Chekhov-like, elliptical style, with all the important things left unsaid, his current characters can’t wait to spill what’s on their minds. Like Chekhov’s people in their indecision and helplessness, they’re virtually anti-Chekhovian in their explicitness. Words reel out of them: shopping lists, lists of instructions, recollections, desires, laments, challenges, recriminations, even secrets. True, one or two of the latter have to be dug for, but in general the intimacy is instantaneous and nonstop.

The troupe Donaghy’s invented is too weird to be banal, less a nuclear than an unclear family, with nobody sure what rights or responsibilities they’ve got. Jackie and his wife Pam, relative newlyweds in a new home with a new baby, should be a prototype young American couple, only Pam’s disappeared, and neurotic, anal-compulsive Jackie has to get his newly widowed stepmom, Joyce, whom he’s never liked, to mind the infant. Joyce isn’t good with kids—notice how Jackie’s turned out—and finds the day full of traumatic intruders, including a local teen painting the house, who seems overly devoted to Pam, and a male neighbor tending the lawn, who seems oddly fascinated by Jackie and child-rearing.

The play holds to this state of chaotic, almost eventless, confrontation until Pam’s whereabouts are duly revealed and the shaken-up family unit recoalesces as a sort of New Age extended clan, held together by emotional blackmail: It’s too late for them to break up, since everybody now knows everybody else’s secrets. At the end, Jackie makes a speech to the baby about the beautiful future—shades of Chekhov!—but it would be incautious to take this as the moral: The speech begins, “This isn’t what usually goes on.”

In a sense, Donaghy’s play is annoyingly easy; we’ve met its eccentrics before, and heard its repertoire of evasions and fact-slappings. What’s piquant is the notion of offering up the dysfunction as is, without comment or context—just little people having their wacky little ego collisions, like a session of outdoor group therapy on a sunny afternoon. Its affectlessness is its charm; the irritating moments are those when you catch the writer trying to make too much of something. Phenomenology means never having to strain for effects.

Neil Pepe’s production, at least, doesn’t strain; at worst, it occasionally gets laggard, lingering over some piece of emotional material. It doesn’t do this often, though, and the people are so interesting you don’t mind hanging with them to see what develops. Mary Steenburgen naturally gets the lion’s share of attention and applause as stepmom Joyce, and, for once in the history of movie stars returning to the stage, actually deserves both. The sweet, Victorian-cameo face projects a panoply of feelings; the seemingly tiny, sour-wine voice turns out to have a big, big range of tones and colors. Garret Dillahunt, as Jackie, holds his own handsomely opposite her; his confusion, once or twice, gets a touch artificial, but what can you do with a character who’s literally all confusion? Mary McCann catches Pam’s vacant puzzlement with wonderful effectiveness, while soft-spoken Ray Anthony Thomas and brash Jason Ritter, as neighbor and painter respectively, provide an almost vaudevillean balance.

More talk—dense, unnerving, and contradictory—is the substance of Craig Lucas’s Stranger, in which the characters’ articulateness seems to exist on a higher plane than their actions. Maybe the literal plane on which they travel in the first act is symbolic of the bumpy, two-level ride ahead. If you took Lucas’s tale as realistic, it would offer limited believability and incomplete sense, but he works at a theatrical interface special to him, the point where melodrama meets fairy-tale metaphysics. On that level, what happens in Stranger isn’t so implausible. Shaw said that melodrama was the naturalism of our dream life; it’s easy to view Stranger as a sensitive soul’s bad dream about the relations between men and women, love and power, pain and pleasure, as they exist in our drugged-up, overwrought society.

A man troubled by schizophrenia commits a crime against a young girl. Stabilized by medication, having done 15 years in prison and become born-again, he’s on a plane, seated next to a woman who tells him a horrifying story (which we see enacted) about how she humiliated, tortured, and robbed a guileless man who loved her. Her fellow passenger wants to help people; she, expressing intense guilt, needs help. But Act II, where the melodramatic setups carefully concealed in Act I explode full force, is a very different tankful of lobsters, in which the abused become abusers and the balance of power shifts seismographically. The ending is none of the obvious clinchers you might expect, though it contains bits of all of them.

The real question is why Lucas, a serious writer noted for his subtlety, would engage in what, taken crudely, seems only an exercise in discreet Grand Guignol. The answer, presumably, is that he means the crudity as a medium for discussion on that higher plane where people have to put their life choices in perspective, facing not only their own desires but the consequence and meaning of their actions. This sets him a fierce aesthetic problem: The deeper the language goes into the moral and metaphysical realm, the further away it gets from the characters, hamstrung as they are by the melodrama’s elaborate circumstances. In the couple’s dialogic struggle—which in the second half rises to some powerful heights of excitement—you can easily sense Lucas’s struggle to fuse his two levels into one, to make this recalcitrant, runaway, earthbound vehicle drive to the lofty philosophic heights he wants to reach. At moments, I wished he’d had the Shavian temerity to throw the plot away and let the characters say something like: “All right, you want to torture and murder me. Let’s discuss the ethics of that.” But even Lucas, who’s really just beginning to extend his remarkable reach as a playwright, would have trouble selling that to America, where to most people the unexamined life is the only one worth living. We find it so much easier to erase the past or wave it as a battle flag for revenge; the two crazy characters trapped in Lucas’s web of coincidences have a lot of kindred spirits out there.

They also have, luckily, two fine actors to embody them, able to keep the physical battle going while the twisty, ethereal words writhe through the air. David Strathairn’s grave, burning-eyed presence, his wholly individual way of letting emotions unroll slowly, like bolts of heavy fabric, give the man an ominous stature, against which Kyra Sedgwick deploys a furious, energized febrility. It’s the irresistible force meeting the immovable object, a collision that always sends off sparks. Mark Brokaw’s direction keeps them crackling, though I wish he’d given the evening a framework that suggested something going on besides the usual thriller frenzies. For starts, he might point up a few of the carefully contrived lapses from sense with which the text is salted; Lucas’s gift for the way people mishear and misstate to suit their purposes is in particularly fine form.

I haven’t many words left for Bill Irwin, but he doesn’t need mine: He has Beckett’s, pouring in lovely gushes of helpless entrapment and hollow reassurance, gently flecked with rue. Irwin loves and understands these pieces, though sometimes with an awareness of their double meanings slightly too self-conscious and artificial for my taste. When he lives in the words’ situation, he’s glorious; when he shows off their double meanings, with halting rhythms and mannered vocal shifts, he’s merely actorish. On the glory side, though, he has another asset in Doug Stein’s gigantic rockslide of a set (he enters skidding down it from above). Climbing, stumbling, lurching, sliding, lolling, or sinking, he meets its outcroppings and crannies with a hapless physical bravado that’s the essence of what the texts assert. He may not yet have fully surrendered his diction, but his body belongs wholly to Beckett, and speaks volumes.