Saturday, May 23, 2009

What B'way doesn't Desire

Partly because I'm planning my wedding & covering the awards season for Metromix, I've been lazy about blogging. Which is too bad: I've seen some great shows. Generally I'm bored by plays about suburbia, but Next to Normal hit me hard. I'm a sucker for stories about mental illness, & this one didn't compromise with a happy ending (unlike Distracted, whose flip finale undermined a funny look at ADHD). Normal also left Lady Hotspur in tears, & she's not easily moved.

But I especially want to take note of Desire Under the Elms, which closes this weekend. I'm not surprised at this news (Lady H. called it “the worst play I've ever seen on Broadway”), but I am disappointed. It's not arid or anodyne like most legit drama. Director Robert Falls has cut away about half of Eugene O'Neill's script & replaced it with bold theatrical gestures. It stumbles and it misfires, but it's not boring.

This show fits on a Broadway stage, which I can't say about most modern drama. A good show is conceived to a specific type of space, & O'Neill belongs on a huge stage like the St. James. Desire is bold melodrama: its personalities are fervent and its emotions are grandiose. Desire gets a lot of its energy from an Oedipal triangle, with a Yankee kid stealing the farm and third wife from his father. That young wife is a gorgon of sexual desire (thus the title--O'Neill, like Strindberg, finds women horrifying).

Desire is bizarre, which Falls accepts. That's why I like the show, and probably why it couldn't find an audience. Falls replaces O'Neill's elaborate & over-explicit dialogue with expressionistic dialogue-free scenes backed by raggedy Bob Dylan. Stars Pablo Schreiber and Carla Gugino, accustomed to realistic emotional arcs, look skittish or dumbstruck. Yeah, Falls should've coached them better, but they just don't have the acting skill set. And a Broadway crowd has the same problem: they don't know how to interpret such a strange, unconventional show.

O'Neill's lurid tale of adultery and infanticide sounds like he based it on a 19th-century newspaper clipping. It's from the era when rural folks visited the circus tent on Saturday and the revival tent Sunday, and the railroad line led straight to damnation. Robert Falls' Desire is set in that folktale America, a long ways from the clean crossroads of Times Square. I can't imagine a Broadway where this show could be a blockbuster, but it's a more interesting one than ours.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Pretty Theft / Desire Under the Elms

I've been pushing my writing by conducting more interviews recently. Last week, Metromix published my best so far, a phone conversation with Stephin Merritt of Magnetic Fields, who's writing music for a stage adaptation of Coraline. My piece turned out well, mainly because Merritt's so charming & articulate but also I'm finally figuring out how to interview. I also caught a pair of shows last week: Desire Under the Elms on Broadway and Pretty Theft off-off. I'd like to write Desire up for Metromix, but here's a quickie for you:

I loved Desire, but Lady Hotspur called it “the worst show I've ever seen on Broadway.” Director Bob Falls takes a big risk by editing a Eugene O'Neill drama down to 100 minutes. It interferes with the natural narrative flow, which turns the play's arc into a series of weird, almost expressionistic events. Carla Gugino & Pablo Schreiber, trying to play it realistic, couldn't find a through-line, but Brian Dennehy nailed his role. Add a crazy set (boulders & a 19th c. farmhouse hanging above the stage) & you've got the weirdest show I've ever seen on B'way. I loved it, but I can see why it's not for most tastes.

After the grandiosity of Desire, I found Pretty Theft refreshing. I'm only 34, but I'm probably older than anyone in the show. Generally when that happens, I figure (rightly or not) that the young company is just damned hungry to do theater wherever & however they can. That the show's on the 4th floor of a Chinatown walk-up only reinforces that impression. The Flux Theatre Ensemble has created one of those no-budget productions where the artistic director tears your ticket & the lighting is mostly on an overhead track. Pretty Theft has a few bum notes, but its mistakes are those of youth -- which I easily forgive.

The play involves an autistic ward, a father's death, the kind of friend your mother warned you about, and the kind of stranger your mother *really* warned you about. But playwright Adam Szymkowicz balances those heavy elements with a zany tone and oddball characters. His protagonist is Allegra, a nice-looking naïf who's spending the summer before college volunteering at a hospice. Possessing a warmth way beyond her years (a trait matched superbly by Marnie Schulenburg), she makes a connection with an autistic man.

However, the show (& Allegra's boyfriend) are stolen by the sidekick, a bad girl named Suzy. Both in Szymkowicz's writing and in Maria Portman Kelly's performance, Suzy is the type of girl who compensates for low self-esteem by throwing herself at boys & stealing lipstick from drugstores. Both Suzy and Allegra are warm, vital characters; that Szymkowicz mines laughs from their neuroses suggests he'd be great at sex comedy. The show's high point, where Suzy seduces Allegra's moronic boyfriend at the movie theater, had me hoping Pretty Theft would be a teenaged screwball comedy. No such luck, but the direction it takes is so different and unexpected, I didn't mind. The girls go on the run, Thelma-and-Louise style, eventually meeting that dark stranger in one of the more chilling scenes I've seen recently.

But there's those problems I mentioned come up. Director Angela Astle gets good perfs from her actors, but she doesn't have a good eye for stage composition (yet). I found my eye focusing on the “wrong” spot: the heroines often get upstaged by secondary or tertiary characters. Astle and Szymkowicz also indulge in not one but two expressionist scenes to illustrate the autistic man's mental collapse. On their own, they're effective enough. But they steal narrative focus away from Allegra & Suzy, & slow the show down when it should be ramping up (whereas a scene depicting Allegra's dream builds her psyche while offering a break from the play's realism).

Structure is one of the hardest devices to master, & anyway I believe we live in an era of sloppy construction. But in the future, Szymkowicz should be cunning and vicious with his editing, and Astle should be confident, even merciless with her playwrights. They, and the entire company, have got enough vim & talent that they can afford to take the collaborative risk. Pretty Theft runs for two more weeks.


photo credits: (1) Liz Lauren (2) Isaiah Tanenbaum