22 April 2011

Lanford Wilson (1937-2011)

[Playwright Lanford Wilson died at 73 on Thursday, 24 March. On 4 April, I published on ROT a memorial to Ellen Stewart, queen of Off-Off-Broadway, the arena that gave Wilson a place to begin his successful and important career in American theater. Not only were his plays among the first to appear in Off-Off-Broadway spaces—it’s hard to call them theaters back then—but his Balm in Gilead was the first full-length play to be written specifically for Off-Off-Broadway, produced at La MaMa in 1965. Wilson was one of the playwrights, along with Jean-Claude van Itallie and Sam Shepard, on whom La MaMa and other Off-Off-Broadway theaters relied for new plays, and in 1969, Wilson and his friend and directorial collaborator Marshall W. Mason joined with actors Tanya Berezin and Robert Thirkield to found their own theater, the Circle Repertory Company (which ceased operations in 1996).

[Lanford Wilson was always a playwright whose work I enjoyed. Of the American dramatists who came of age in the second half of the 20th century, following in the footsteps of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, Wilson was the writer who most intrigued and engaged me. His lyrical use of language almost approached Williams’s prose poetry, though his characters were a step below the iconic figures Williams created. (Wilson was the librettist for the 1971 opera adaptation of Williams’s Summer and Smoke, with music by Lee Hoiby—the only one of Williams’s major works set to music during the playwright’s lifetime.) I’ve seen eight of Wilson’s plays performed, starting with a university production of The Hot l Baltimore when I was at Rutgers getting an MFA in the mid-1970s (I wasn’t involved in the production). I saw Tally’s Folly, Redwood Curtain, and Burn This on Broadway; Burn This, Book of Days, Rain Dance, and Fifth of July Off-Broadway; Angels Fall Off-Off-Broadway; and Fifth of July and Lemon Sky on TV (American Playhouse). Unfortunately, I only wrote on two, Fifth of July and Rain Dance, both part of the Signature Theatre Company’s Lanford Wilson season in 2002-03. (As it happens, I didn’t start writing theater reports until January 2003, so I lack reports on both the earlier two plays in the season, and anything that I saw in the almost 30 years since I’d moved to New York City. There are passing mentions of the earlier Signature productions in my brief reports, however.) As a homage to Wilson, I’m publishing those early play reports, however inadequate they may seem now (I seem not to have had much to say about Fifth of July), on ROT. ~Rick]

(10 February 2003)

The Signature Theatre Company production of Fifth of July was really excellent. I was looking forward to seeing this show because I've never seen Fifth of July on stage before—only the PBS TV version in 1982. I had seen Burn This, which Signature revived earlier this season in September-December 2001, on Broadway, but with Scott Glenn instead of Malkovich. Ben Brantley's New York Times review of Fifth of July came out three days before I saw the show on Friday, 8 February, and ironically, Brantley drew a comparison between the two sets of stagings, noting that Swoosie Kurtz's stellar performance in Fifth of July on Broadway in the early ‘80s overwhelmed the other performances just as Malkovich's had done in Burn This later in that decade, but that the Signature's productions had evened out the acting so that all the work was balanced. (Truthfully, I can't say I liked Edward Norton's performance much. I haven't liked his film work much, either, really.)

A couple of the performances were a little over the edge, but the rest were terrific, and the play comes off tremendously. It is a little dated, being too tied up with the experiences of the Vietnam generation in the aftermath of the war, but it was well handled, and even if Lanford Wilson's dramaturgy harks back to the '50s well-made play era, it still works as theater. The two performances that I didn't like were Parker Posey, who was just trying too hard to be a flake—she wasn't quite credible—and the girl who played Shirley, the 13-year-old kid, who was just too much of a precocious brat. Posey, whose problem may stem from the fact that she's mostly a film actress and not a stage actress, seemed more like she was playing at being a flaky flibberty-gibbet than being one. The little girl (and I have no idea if the actress, Sarah Lord, is as young as the character, but if she is, her problem may come from inexperience) was way more annoying than I think the character is supposed to be. She should be amusing and quirky—this one you just wanted to get off the stage. The rest of the cast, including Robert Sean Leonard, was good, and a couple of the supporting characters were really great. Anne Pitoniak as Aunt Sally was terrific; I never quite knew if she was failing and frail or as strong as a bull, dotty and gaga or sharp as a whip. She didn't so much flip back and forth, but be all of that at once, spotlighting some characteristics one time and others another time. Ebon Moss-Bachrach, who played the musician friend, was a little like that, too—he was either a burned-out flake or a perceptive guy who just happened to hear different music from the rest of us. And Michael Gladis, the fellow who plays Ken Talley's lover, doesn't have a flashy role, but he's just solid and believable. It was just nice work all around. Diane, who shares the subscription with me, complained that there was little that was happening—she even called it Chekovian—but I don't think that's necessarily a fault. It's a kind of portrait of part of a generation—mine, as it happens. (My guess is the gang depicted here, who all went to Berkeley together, were there at just about the same time as I was in college, myself.)

(23 May 2003)

Lanford Wilson’s Rain Dance at the Signature Theatre Wednesday night, 21 May, was a disappointment. That's especially due to Ben Brantley's New York Times review, which was very positive all in all. (He had some quibbles, but came down in the end on a laudatory note, I thought.) I've had trouble with Brantley before on this score, but in this case I’d thought maybe he’d been more accurate because his evaluation lined up with Wilson's track record. I probably should have stuck with my usual skepticism with respect to Brantley's reviews.

(My problem with Brantley isn't simply that he's too "gentle." I've had dichotomous disagreements with his reviews from both sides—he's panned plays I thought were good and praised some that I thought were not. This has happened both so often and in such extremes that I almost always discount his evaluations and read only for descriptions of the shows. I’ve read that he holds himself entirely aloof from the theater world—so he isn't contaminated with personal associations—and that he lives far from the city and only comes in to review his shows. It sounds like he lives in a separate world in his head, isolated from everything real the rest of us use as measuring sticks. I first came up with this notion when he gave an elaborate description of a smell associated with a performance that was entirely imaginary on his part and associated it with memories that only he could have had. I interpret this to mean that when he sees a play, he sees something in his head that's not the same as what the rest of us see.)

The play’s set in 1945 at Los Alamos, on the day—or rather night—before the first A-test. It's June, I think (the first bomb was dropped on August 5), and a young scientist, played by James van der Beek, is hanging out in some outbuilding with a sergeant who is a Pueblo Indian (Randolf Mantooth). Shortly, the wife of one of the senior scientists arrives, and subsequently her husband (Harris Yulin) shows up. I won't bother with the little plot details like the apparent affair between the wife and the NCO—it doesn't go anywhere in terms of the play—or even what they were doing in the building (especially since I never really figured out where it was anyway). The play was almost entirely talk, with a lot of dropped factoids and, especially, names (though they were all just last names—you'd have to know the history to figure out who they were really talking about—like Szilard and Teller, or nicknames, like "Oppie"), that was supposed to be expressing the mixed feelings of the scientists over what they were about to do. (Oppenheimer's famous Baghavad Gita line, "I am become death, destroyer of worlds." is alluded to, but not quoted.) There was a little side issue between the sergeant and the young guy—he's very taken with the Indian culture and beliefs, and he waxes philosophical about what he thinks he's learned, to the amusement of the Indian (who had had a career in the '20s performing Indian dances in Europe with a troupe that had turned the sacred rites into show-biz entertainment, à la Folies Bergère). There was also some talk about the strange attractiveness of the desert and Sangre de Cristo Mountains—lots of references to the colors and the light, as if they (it was mostly the young guy again) were channeling Georgia O'Keeffe—but this was all just atmosphere. The play ends before the A-test, though we know it succeeded, and virtually nothing else happens in the two-hour, intermissionless performance.

As Diana pointed out, the main point—the dichotomy of the scientists' feelings—has been treated and discussed a lot by now—it's not really a revelation, and Wilson didn't add anything new or startling to it. He also didn't arrive at any conclusion, one way or the other. I mean, we know they went through not only with the test, but with the development of the bombs themselves, and Los Alamos continues even today as a weapons development lab. (In the one ironic note of the play, which was not developed—and may have even slipped everyone else's attention—Yulin's character talks about the future of the Manhattan Project and predicts that it will be disbanded after the successful test because there'd be no further need for it. The young guy tells Yulin that he's been recruited to stay on with some other scientists, but this little exchange doesn't go any further. Probably everyone in the audience knows that the lab is still functioning—it's been in the news a bit lately.) Anyway, the conflicted feelings don't really go anywhere, either.

Personally, after thinking about it, the play I'd like to have seen Wilson develop is the one that works through the contrast of the young scientist's response to the Indian culture he's observing and that of the older Indian man who sees it as just the way his people live, nothing extraordinary. (The young scientist's from the Bronx, by the way, and an Italian-American—obviously meant to be as far away as you can get from a Southwestern country boy with any previous contact with native cultures. And the Indian man has left the reservation and lived not only among Anglos, but in Europe, so he has a somewhat distanced perspective on his own people. When the scientist—you note that I can't even remember the characters' names—remarks that the mountains are sacred to the Pueblos, the Indian guy says, "Well, yeah. Everything's sacred to the Indian.") It might have been really interesting to see the "noble savage" image of the scientist put up against the more realistic, even skeptical, view of the Indian. I'm not sure where that might have gone—that's why I'm not a playwright—but it strikes me as an interesting idea to look into.

This was the second "new" play in the Wilson season, as I mentioned earlier, I think. Both seemed to have been written, or at least staged, in a rush—going from concept to production without a lot of noodling and rethinking. Book of Days had too many different points, all jumbled together and none really developed or concluded. This one has a sort of half of an idea that hasn't been fully probed or examined. But both plays look to me like they were conceived out of topical politics that angered Wilson. The first was the sort of take-over of American politics by (phony) conservative religiosity. (If the William Bennett revelation concerning his gambling problem had happened before Wilson wrote Days, I'm sure it would have ended up in the play—it fits with the rest of the stuff he included.) Dance seems to have come out of Wilson's feelings about the saber-rattling and war-mongering of the Bush administration over Iraq. He had to have written the play before the final build-up and war, but the atmosphere has been present since 9/11, and it looks like the "debate" (it wasn't one, unfortunately, but I imagine he meant it to be) among the scientists at Los Alamos over the morality of what they were doing vs. the pure science of their accomplishments (and the specter of more Americans dying in the Pacific if the war goes on—that was raised a couple of times, especially by the Indian man because some of the young men from his pueblo were fighting the Japanese) is meant to be a stand-in for a debate over a war with Iraq—a debate that never took place in the real world. In the case of both these plays, I feel Wilson wrote out of immediate anger—a strong feeling that he needed to express. That may account for the sense I have that they were both rushed into production without much revising and rethinking. Artistically, unfortunately, that seems to have been a bad decision. (This is all rank speculation, of course. As my former teacher Aaron Frankel used to say—I don't have Wilson's phone number.)

It's really too bad about both these plays, especially in terms of the Signature season. Revisiting Burn This and, especially, Fifth of July only show what wonderful stage pieces he can write and has written. His program bio lists some of the best contemporary plays of the past three decades. It makes these two seem all the more wan and unworthy by comparison. (That's why I wonder if Wilson's slipping.)

I didn't say anything about the performances, mostly because they were basically fine. Brantley singled out Suzanne Regan as the wife, but she's really no better than anyone else. Mantooth had the most interesting character to play, so he stood out for me—but he did just as good a job as Yulin and Regan. Actually, van der Beek, whom Brantley criticized as miscast, had one real fault. He pushed too hard (as I said about Parker Posey in July). He came off a little louder than everyone else, but I don't think he was just shouting. I think—and this is also just spec—that he saw the character as being over-enthusiastic and this is how he played him. Brantley said he wasn't complex enough, and he's right, but I wonder if that wasn't partly the director's fault. (Maybe TV acting ruins an actor, even one with stage chops, but my bet is that one-dimensional performances work on TV because the writers manipulate the scripts to benefit the limited range of the actors, and stage and film work won't accommodate that. When a good actor, say, Patrick Stewart, works in TV, he gets more to do as an actor because he can do more—his talent opens up the possibilities that the writers have to work with. Sometimes, however, the TV screen just can’t contain an actor with tremendous range. I think that's why James Earl Jones, for instance, has never succeeded on TV. It's too limited to handle him.)

The whole play was pretty one-note in terms of character work. (The director was Guy Sanville, of whom I’d never heard.) Anyway, I take my cue for van der Beek's performance from the things he says onstage: he's wowed by everything, from the landscape, the Indian cultures and art—he goes on about a platter by a famous (real) Pueblo potter—and, not least, that as a 25-year-old, he's rubbing shoulders with the most famous physicists in the Western world, including his idol, Enrico Fermi. (Oh, I do remember one name—the young guy's Hank, which he explains is the Americanized nickname for his real name: Enrico.) Yulin, of course, is one of those consummate pros who can go on automatic pilot and turn in a credible performance; the hardest work I think he had to do here was put on a slight German accent (he and his wife are refugees from Hitler's Germany). Since all any of the cast had to do for the most part was talk—an actor's stock in trade, after all—it wasn't all that demanding. (There wasn't even all that much science in the dialogue that might have made it hard to learn.)

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