Sunday, 9 September 2012

Sam Shepard's HEARTLESS

     I have seen three fine plays this week and can't help but notice their common bonds. All three plays involve an ascent into a spiritual darkness from which the characters do not fully escape. All three plays mix realism with the symbolic and/or the surreal. I should add that all three are brilliantly acted, directed and designed -- and that all three are produced on 42nd Street West of 9th Avenue. There is no question that Playwrights Horizons and the Signature Center are the premiere theaters in New York right now in every way including audience amenities. The New York TIMES today had an article extolling Playwrights Horizon's as the theater doing the most interesting work this season. I would add the Signature. When I look at the coming season, everything I am particularly excited to see is west of 8th Avenue.
     HEARTLESS places us in Sam Shepard territory, haunting and surreal. The play begins with a horrific scream. It is a while before we realize who is the source of that scream. We're in the Los Angeles hills again  as in TRUE WEST, another play with a powerful but enigmatic matriarch (mothers are as important as fathers in Shepard), but we're also in Sam Shepard country where relationships are never easily defined. Roscoe (Gary Cole), an expert on Cervantes and Borges (an early modern and modernist writer who share only their Spanish language), has left his family and has been invited by Sally (Julianne Nicholson) to stay in the Los Angeles home Sally shares with her mother, her older sister and her mother's supposedly silent nurse. Sally is hungry for a relationship with a man, though Roscoe sees her as a friend. At an early age Sally's heart gave out and she was given the heart of a young girl who died in an accident. Sally has felt strongly her possession of an alien heart and feels an odd kinship to its dead (?) owner. While Sally initially welcomes Roscoe, her bitter sister, Lucy (Jenny Bacon) and her mother, Mable (the magnificent Lois Smith), are much less cordial. Both abuse various drugs and both are mercuric, to put it mildly. Mable's nurse (Betty Gilpin) supposedly has chosen not to speak, but at various times utters agonized and agonizing cried of pain. Roscoe finds that he can not get his bearings in this household where he is alternately interrogated and hectored by Sally's mother and sister. Wheelchair bound Mable sees herself as a dutiful mother, protecting her children as a mother must, but she is also detached and self-absorbed. 
     As the play progresses, things become more dreamlike and identities blur. Is the nurse also the spirit of the dead girl whose heart beats inside Sally? Why does bitter Lucy suddenly become manic, longing for escape? What does Roscoe really want? Here is another play in which the denouement is both surprising and totally justified by what went before. Like Edward Albee, Shepard isn't a big believer in familial love, despite the family ideals preached by the matriarch. Families are battlegrounds, sometimes fights to the death. The scenes between the sisters and between mother and daughters are riddled with conflicts. What do these family members want of Roscoe? When he decides to leave, they do everything to stop him, but suddenly change their minds.
     Some reviewers have criticized Daniel Aukin's production for being too surreal -- not realistic enough. They don't understand Shepard or this play. Shepard is always surreal. Even when he describes a realistic setting, he want the audience to know that it is a setting, that the realism is merely a convention and a provisional one at that. The epigraph to this production (from Shepard or Aukin? Not that it matters) is from absurdist Eugene Ionesco, "everything does indeed seem to be shadow and evanescence." Aukin rightfully sees this as a poetic play. Eugene Lee's all black unit set allows for extreme separation of the characters. The entire cast is superb, catching the eerie mood of the play and the anguish of the characters. 
HEARTLESS by Sam Shepard Signature Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center.

Saturday, 8 September 2012


     The York Theatre Company has mounted a revival of the 1989 Richard Maltby,Jr./David Shire revue, CLOSER THAN EVER. Maltby has updated some of the lyrics and has staged the production on a simple unit set with a cast of excellent Broadway veterans, George Dvorsky,  Jacquelyn Piro Donovan, Anika Larsen and Sal Viviano, aided by a hard-working piano-bass combo. CLOSER THAN EVER is more a song cycle than a traditional revue. There are twenty-four songs about relationships, mostly about the sort of feelings middle-aged suburbanites might feel -- restlessness during a long marriage, anxiety about dating again after a breakup, loving the wrong person. While the performers were very good, I couldn't get into the show. Shire's songs all sound the same, mostly up tunes and patter songs with too few ballads. Maltby's lyrics tell stories within each song, but I kept thinking, "This isn't my life." I just didn't find much to relate to in all this perky heterosexual angst and Shire's music just isn't good enough to keep one's interest through twenty-four songs, many of which go on a verse or two -- or three -- too long.
CLOSER THAN EVER. York Theatre Company at St. Peters Center. September 7, 2012.


     It's a sign of the current, hopeful state of contemporary drama that many of the best playwrights are women: Annie Baker, Gina Gionfriddo, Quiara Allegra Hudes, Amy Herzog, among others. These artists work in the traditional American mode of poetic realism. There is more going on than the viewer first realizes in plays that begin as "slices of life," but take surprising turns. Lisa D'Amour's DETROIT, now at Playwrights Horizons, goes farther in the direction of poetry than most of these plays. One knows from the beginning that things are more unsettled than they seem, but the ultimate cataclysm is both horrifying and a logical extension of what has gone before.
     The initial setting is the backyard of a house in a Levittown-like community. Once a neighborly environment, it now reflects the current state of American anomie. "We have no friends," Mary (Amy Ryan - wonderful!) admits to her and Ben's new next door neighbors, Sharon and Kenny. Ben (David Schwimmer -- yes, THAT David Schwimmer) was laid off from his job as a mortgage broker and is supposedly home working on a website to start a business as a financial consultant. Mary is now the sole breadwinner. She also has a drinking problem. Sharon and Kenny (Darren Pettie and Sharon Sokolovic) have just moved next door. Supposedly (their story changes in retelling) they met in rehab and now have menial jobs. They seem to be settling in though it is odd that there is no furniture in their house. In a series of back and front yard scenes at the two houses, we see that little is as it seems and that Mary and Ben are deeply unhappy with themselves and each other, though they cling to each other out of a kind of desperation. Sharon and Kenny are not only free spirits, luring Mary and Ben into a kind of Dionysian revelry; like Dionysus, they are also destructive. There are all sorts of things going on here. In part this is a kind of class commentary: middle class and underclass trying to find common ground. Mary serves caviar to Sharon and Kenny as an hors d'oeuvre; later Sharon serves Cheetos and Cheese Whiz on Ritz crackers. At their first meeting, Mary gives her neighbors her cocktail table, a bizarre act of generosity or desperation at establishing a friendship; later she finds that it is Sharon and Kenny's only furniture. Mary and Ben own their house; Sharon and Kenny, it turns out, are squatters. For these newcomers, destruction of property is an act of liberation. Are they sociopaths or are they on to something -- that American materialism hasn't made anyone happy?
     At times, the play takes on the surface comfort of a tv sitcom, but there is always something troubling under the surface and little hope of redemption.  Neighborly backyard barbecues always lead to injuries. Mary dreams of going to the woods on a camping trip with Sharon to find some sort of peace but the two women get lost and have to return home. If Levittown and its ilk once represented the American dream -- one's own home and family as a source of peace and contentment, that dream has been lost. Surveying the destruction Sharon and Kenny caused, long time occupant of the neighborhood, Frank (that great veteran actor, John Cullum) waxes nostalgic about the time when this was a community -- when there was at least a dream of community in America, but even he admits that his memory may only be a dream. Whatever things were like in the past, now friendship is merely a performance or a set of demands.
     I found DETROIT to be an absorbing, sometimes entertaining, disturbing play. Anne Kauffman's staging is pitch perfect and the cast is excellent as they move into a kind of heart of darkness. I can see why DETROIT was a Pulitzer Prize finalist this year. Unmissable!
DETROIT by Lisa D'Amour. Playwrights Horizons. September 8, 2012.


Thursday, 6 September 2012


     For more than half a century, Athol Fugard has been one of the most important dramatic voices in the Anglophone world. His topic is usually his native South Africa, but his plays always have a wider resonance. Like the playwrights he grew up reading, the great Anglophone writers of the first half of the last century, they are examples of poetic realism -- specific as to the who, what and where, but always with a mastery of theatrical poetry and big themes: death, hope, maturation, human kinship, forgiveness, faith (if of a secular kind). THE TRAIN DRIVER, now at the wonderful Signature Center, is no exception. As is often the case, Fugard has directed the play as well.
     THE TRAIN DRIVER is being performed in the Linney Theatre at the Signature, a large, rectangular black box theatrical space. Fugard has chosen to stage the play on an extremely wide playing area, which gives the two characters a sense of isolation. The action is a long flashback, framed by the narration of Simon Hanabe (Leon Addison Brown), the caretaker of a burial ground for nameless dead. His sandy cemetery looks almost lunar. The graves are marked with pieces of junk (hubcaps, old watering cans) because no flowers grow there. Dogs dig up the bodies at night and a cannibal tribe has been known to attack and bury its victims there. This is a desolate, terrifying space, a vision of hell. Simon lives in a small tin shack in the graveyard, living on a diet of beans, bread and water.
     Enter Roelf (Ritchie Coster), a white train driver seeking the grave of a young Black woman and her baby. The young woman stepped in the path of his train and her suicide and murder of her child has haunted him. He can't forget her look of despair as she faced down the train, a hopelessness that Roelf has caught from her. He has left his home and come to the graveyard to curse her, but over the course of a few days and nights, forgives her and regains some glimmer of hope. THE TRAIN DRIVER is played out in monologues, silences, and snatches of conversation between the two men, both of whom seem trapped in the past. Simon speaks of his childhood. Ritchie of his unsatisfying marriage and of the death of the woman and child. There doesn't seem to be any present or future for these characters and one senses that no one leaves this graveyard in body or spirit. At his entrance, Roelf has to climb down into the cemetery over the shell of an abandoned car, as if descending into some hellish space. He never climbs back up. The Playbill tells us that this graveyard is on the site of a squatter's camp on the outskirts of Port Elizabeth. Fugard has said that his favorite playwright is Tennessee Williams. He has the same ability to create theatrical worlds that are both geographically specific and symbolic. There are also echoes of Samuel Beckett here in the landscape and the desolation one can feel in the silences. Christopher H. Barrecca's vast, bleak set and Stephen Strawbridge's constantly changing lighting perfectly reinforce Fugard's words.
     Some may find this an old-fasioned play. It is not a play for people with short attention spans. However, if you are willing to surrender to the playwright's sense of time, his mastery of language and character, you will find THE TRAIN DRIVER to be a rich, joyful (in the sense of Yeat's "tragic joy" -- there are certainly elements of tragedy here) if not a "happy" experience. Oh, yes, the actors are superb. Brown's Simon, content to live in a circumscribed physical world and Coster's Roelf, filled with questions and emotions he struggles to articulate. A totally absorbing ninety minutes.
THE TRAIN DRIVER, written and directed by Athol Fugard. Linney Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center. September 5, 2012.