27 March 2013

'The Mound Builders'

The Mound Builders, currently on stage in the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center on Theatre Row, is a relatively early entry in Lanford Wilson’s prolific catalogue of plays.  Written in 1975, when Wilson was 38, it was premièred at the Circle Repertory Company while the author was the company’s playwright-in-residence (1969-95), perhaps the eleventh script he’d written since his first works for the seminal Caffe Cino in 1964 (Home Free! and The Madness of Lady Bright, the Cino’s first popular success).  Wilson wrote about two dozen plays before his death in 2011 at the age of 73.  The STC revival of Mound Builders is the final production of the theater’s 2012-13 Legacy Program which has revisited the work of four artists who were previously presented as playwrights-in-residence at the theater.  Wilson was the subject of an STC residency in 2002-03 which included revivals of Burn This (1986) and Fifth of July (1978) and the New York premières of Book of Days (2000) and Rain Dance (2002). 

Less than a week after being at the Signature Center to see Bill Irwin and David Shiner in Old Hats (see my ROT report of 22 March), I was back again for the evening performance of The Mound Builders on Wednesday, 20 March.  Following its 1975 première, which won an Obie Award for Distinguished Playwriting, the Public Broadcasting System televised the play on Theatre in America in February 1976 (with much the same cast) and then Circle Rep revived the play in 1986 as part of a three-play repertory (with Albert Camus’s Caligula and Anne Chislett’s Quiet in the Land) at the Triplex Theatre of the Borough of Manhattan Community College in downtown Manhattan.  Other than that production, though the play is performed regularly around the country, the Signature staging is the only other major revival of the play in New York City.  STC’s revival started previews on 26 February and opened on 17 March; it’s original closing performance was to be on 7 April, but it’s been extended until 14 April.

Directed at STC by Jo Bonney, The Mound Builders is set in 1975 at the site of an archeological dig at Blue Shoals in southern Illinois.  A team of archeologists from a university (apparently U of I, Urbana-Champaign), is trying to save the artifacts of an ancient proto-Indian civilization known as the Mound Builders before a new dam causes the lake to inundate the site in Blue Shoals.  The play takes place in a house near the dig where the two archeologists, Professor August Howe and Dr. Dan Loggins, are living with members of their families, Cynthia Howe, the professor’s wife and the group’s photographer; their daughter, 11-year-old Kirsten; Dan’s pregnant wife, Jean, a gynecologist; and August’s sister D.K., or Delia, Eriksen, a globe-trotting erstwhile novelist who’s come to recover from her latest bout of substance abuse because the Cleveland hospital she was at couldn’t handle her.  A frequent, though not always welcome or invited, visitor is Chad Jasker, the son of the owner of the land on which the dig and the house are located who desperately wants to be accepted by the academics.  The scenes in Blue Shoals are introduced and interrupted by scenes set the following winter in Urbana during which August dictates into a tape recorder descriptions of the slides Cynthia had taken and narrates the events of previous summer. 

Neil Patel’s semi-realistic set is the living room, which is also the main work area for the scientists, of the house, furnished much like someone’s weekend or summer house at the beach or in the mountains—which is to say, rustically and, more to the point, sparsely so that there’s plenty of open space.  (New York Post reviewer Elisabeth Vincentelli wrote that “the place looks like a depressing modernist-rustic lodge.”)  Visible through a wide doorway upstage is the kitchen—the residents make frequent use of the fridge, which is all we see from our vantage point—and a long staircase comes down from the second floor at stage left at about a 30-degree angle.  The house is lit, by Rui Rita, in an often expressionistic style that can make it seem to be a break-away structure.  (The floorboards seem to almost disappear, and I couldn’t figure out how Rita and Patel accomplished that because the floor seemed quite solid when I looked at it under house lights at intermission.  I’m also unsure what this was supposed to indicate, on the assumption that it’s intentionally symbolic and not just an aesthetic effect Bonney liked.  Of course, the fact that it didn’t seem to me to fit is why I noticed it in the first place.)  And as long as I’m commenting on the physical production, I’ll say that Theresa Squire’s costumes were fine and both period and circumstantially appropriate without calling any special attention to themselves (except, perhaps, that young Dr. Loggins apparently favors shorts with work boots, a combination I never really understood—but then, I never worked a summer dig in southern Illinois).  One comment Mel Gussow made in his New York Times review of the Circle Rep première was that the set seemed cramped and “the projections are somewhat diminished.”  That wasn’t a problem in the Linney (although I’m not convinced that the slides—designed by Shawn Sagady and projected on the rear wall of the room upstage right—and the interruptions necessary to show them, are all that dramatic or even helpful).  The cast of seven is somewhat large by today’s standards, but even when everyone was on stage, which happens fairly often in Mound Builders, it never seemed crowded.  There were other problems generated by the number of characters—and their disparate needs—but crowding wasn’t one of them.

As I’ve noted before, the only review I read before I see a play is the Times because I subscribe, so I read Charles Isherwood’s critique two-and-a-half weeks earlier.  His chief complaint was about the directing and, particularly, the acting.  Now, I have serious objections to this play (which I’ll try to explain shortly), but it isn’t so much with the acting or the directing.  No one in the cast really stood out, but I don’t think Wilson wrote this play with star turns in mind.  (He apparently did write Delia for Tanya Berezin, the actress who was also a co-founder—with Wilson; Marshall Mason, the première’s director; and actor Rob Thirkield, who played August Howe—of Circle Rep, which is interesting but pretty much irrelevant here.  Delia’s a somewhat outrageous person, but she’s not any more important to this play than any of the other characters.)  There are characters whose importance I dispute—such as Kirsten, the Howes’ young daughter whom Wilson did cut from the ’86 restaging, and perhaps at least one of the two wives—but that’s not the fault of the actors or Bonney.  August’s dictation monologues are anti-theatrical, as I’ve said, but David Conrad did as well with them as any actor could have and Bonney staged them as strongly as I think is possible.  Conrad’s August is too much of a non-entity all through the play, but that isn’t his fault, either; I can’t imagine a way he or Bonney could have changed that, short of chewing the scenery.  In fact, Bonney kept the whole, meandering, amorphous blob of a play moving along for its 2¼-hour length (plus one intermission) in as lively a manner as she could have.

All the women—Janie Brookshire as Cynthia Howe, Lisa Joyce as Jean Loggins, Rachel Resheff as Kirsten, and Danielle Skraastad as D.K./Delia—captured their roles thoroughly enough, with Skraastad making a slightly greater impression because Delia has more quirks and a clearer intention, always much easier to play than a blank page.  (Delia has more heft as a character, perhaps, because Wilson’s original notion for Mound Builders was that the ad hoc “family” heals her over the summer and that she becomes the strong person in the group who nurtures the others in the end.  Aspects of this idea are left over, especially at the end of the play, but no longer have a rationale.)  The two characters with the most going for them (in terms of actability) are Dan Loggins, the younger scientist (Zachary Booth), and Chad Jaskers, the landowner’s ambitious son (Will Rogers).  Given more to play, these two actors attracted more of my attention than all the others (though, as I’ll try to explain in a bit, their roles weren’t any easier to figure out than the rest).  Booth made clear the youthful enthusiasm Dan has for the discovery of new facts, making the young Ph.D. seem even more like a brainy adolescent than he actually is, even if he was a little one-notish.  Booth’s Dan is an irrepressible puppy whose blindness to others’ perspectives precipitates the one actual act that comes at the play’s end.  Rogers makes Chad almost credible, another overgrown teenager (Chad’s in his mid-20’s), with dollar-signs in his eyes, but intellectual pretentions in his heart.  He also doesn’t see the point of view of the others and the lethal combination of him and Dan, who are as close to friends as any two characters in the play, ignites in the end, but Rogers may be a little too puppyish to carry off the emotional intensity that shows up at the end and his performance is a tad mannered. 

In 1975, Mel Gussow in the Times wrote that “Lanford Wilson’s multi-layered new play . . . challenges the actors and the audience.”  Gussow felt that this was due to the “weight and resonance” of Wilson’s subject, but 38 years later, reviewers of the STC revival gave a different evaluation.  In the current Times, Charles Isherwood complained that watching STC’s “slackly acted” revival “is like cracking open a time capsule that’s been buried for years.”  Its “contents,” pronounced Isherwood, “don’t prove as fascinating to us today as we had reason to hope.”  Wilson “gently probes” the “imploding American family of the late 20th century” with a blend of “lyricism and naturalism,” but the “understated emotional currents come through only hazily in Ms. Bonney’s production,” which “lacks the layered, resonant acting” necessary to bring them out.  “Too many of the performances here never suggest the reserves of feeling that are needed to give texture to the loose-jointed dialogue and lightly sketched-in relationships,” reported the Timesman.  Though I don’t categorically disagree with Isherwood’s evaluation, I find far more fault in the script than I do in the production which, I contend, has been ordained by the play that Wilson wrote.

Whatever errors Bonney and her cast made in mounting the STC revival of The Mound Builders, I found that the main problems were endemic to Wilson’s dramaturgy.  Three main faults seem insuperable to me: it’s endlessly talky without seeming to lead to an action; the various speeches and conversations all seem unconnected to anything, much less one another—each character has his or her own topic of concern; and the final, devastating event, which happens off stage, seems to come out of nowhere, as if Wilson were dropping a bomb.  It was as if Wilson had decided that at two hours the play had gone on long enough and he had to end it, so he slipped in a cataclysm to finalize the plot.  Now, possibly Bonney and the actors could have led up some to the explosion in the end, showing aspects of the characters and their relationships that might suggest that something was building up, but the other two script problems are pretty much outside their control.  (It may be significant that the video of the PBS adaptation of the play is available in a 90-minute version, suggesting that the play can be cut by three-quarters of an hour without serious damage, essentially turning it into a one-act.  At the performance, in fact, I said to my companion that the whole play happens in the last two, two-and-a-half scenes and could be a one-act.) 

Apparently Wilson, who reportedly regarded Mound Builders as his favorite among his own plays and possibly his best work, was trying to get at some thoughts about the nature of civilization, both the small, family-circle kind and the larger, historico-anthropological sort, as well as the way people can be so absorbed in their own worlds that they don’t comprehend or even perceive that others also have points of view that may not agree with their own.  The little society of the Howes, the Logginses, and Chad Jasker has fault lines in it and ultimately splits apart, leaving almost as little behind as the Mound Builders’ culture did.  The fault that causes the breach is the way the scientists, especially Dan, are so absorbed in the discoveries they expect to make, the preservation of the archeological evidence they’re finding that they have no concept that Chad and the people of Blue Shoals he stands in for (read: the “real” world) are looking forward to the big, new lake and the interchange for the Interstate that are going to destroy the dig site because to them, it means tourists, prosperity, and progress.  (The academics are looking for the past, but the locals are looking toward the future.)  There are hints, not all of them subtle, in the early scenes of The Mound Builders that this dichotomous worldview persists, but little is made of them either in Bonney’s production or, really, in Wilson’s script; they’re easy to miss if they’re not punched up in production.  While the play is unfolding, I never noticed them, leaving me with the impression, as I stated, that the climax comes out of the blue (until I thought it over afterwards, and, I confess, began to read some of the criticism of the play, both reviews and literary notes).  The actors didn’t have to hit these points with sledges, but a little tap would have been dramatically helpful; the cast, however, seemed to be intent on keeping all their characters playing on a single note. 

Wilson said that he structured Mound Builders the way archeologists uncover the history of a vanished civilization, by meticulously peeling away layer after layer of dirt to unearth the facts.  The play, which Wilson asserted was “one of the few real stories I've written,” was assembled “in pieces, bits.”  As the scientists examine the artifacts left behind by the Mound Builders, we’re supposed to be discovering their relation to ambition and the future.  But just as the artifacts of the ancient peoples has been interred over time by the remnants of later inhabitants, what Wilson wanted us to uncover is buried deep within a surfeit of what ends up sounding like aimless talk.  “[W]hy were the scenes so—what?  Fragmented,” asked Wilson as he rushed to compose the script by Circle Rep’s deadline.  Was he using August’s dictation and narration, a “common (and lousy) way of connecting disparate scenes,” the playwright acknowledged, as an easy solution to the problem of discontinuity?  The draft of the script had been full of the annotation “bridge to come” between scenes, which Wilson explained was “Circle Rep slang for ‘later.’” 

In the end, the dramatist decided, “It was not in fragments, it was in shards.  It was not a lousy way of telling a story, it was logical, it was organic.”  But my impression is that Wilson was simply mollifying his own concerns, putting aside his initial doubts in order to meet Marshall Mason’s rehearsal schedule.  (The production had already been postponed once and Wilson handed in the second act while the work was already underway and the actors were awaiting the new scenes.)  The scenes are fragmentary and the narration is undramatic and untheatrical.  The bridges never came. 

If sifting through the layers of earthen cover to find the revealing bits and pieces of the Mound Builders’ lives and culture is hard and painstaking work, sitting through more than an act-and-a-half of verbiage to get to the kernel of truth in Wilson’s play is hard work, too, and it defeated me before the payoff came.  When it did, it was a shock to me and I sat up, saying to myself, ‘What?  Where did that come from?’  If Bonney and the actors were supposed to fix that, I’m not sure it’s fair to blame them if they didn’t.  (From what I read of the ’75 and ’86 productions, neither did Marshall Mason and his casts.  Frank Rich, for instance, in his 1986 Times review, wrote: “Audiences who visit the Circle Repertory Company's new and revised revival of Mr. Wilson's 1975 play had better plan on doing some hard digging themselves.  There are some fragments of interest in ‘The Mound Builders,’ but they are buried beneath mounds, if not mountains, of talk.”)

(That revision Rich mentioned, by the way, was specifically undertaken for the ’86 restaging and never made it into a published edition of the script.  It included, among other changes, deleting the character of Kirsten and rewriting some of the text to make the play “more melodramatic, less metaphysical,” according to Newsday’s Linda Winer.  Though Gussow, re-reviewing the new staging, asserted that this “minor” reworking made the text “sharper,” Winer pronounced it a “no-more-popular version” than the short-lived 1975 première.)

Dubbing The Mound Builders “a complex play,” Daily News reviewer Joe Dziemianowicz observed, “It takes a fine-tuned ensemble to breathe believable life into” it but that the “actors relate to each other awkwardly and too loudly.”  The STC revival, an “aimless excavation,” wrote Dziemianowicz, needs a cast “who always seems to be thinking, not just saying lines.”  In the New York Post, Elisabeth Vincentelli complained, “The archaeologists in ‘The Mound Builders’ spend a lot of time talking about their work.”  It’s a “meandering show” and “overly dour,” she observed, in which many of the elements “look good but . . . they aren’t strictly necessary.”  In conclusion, Vincentelli asserted that in the end “the show, like the archaeologists, has dug itself into such a deep hole, it can’t get out.”  Winer proclaimed in Long Island’s Newsday, “‘The Mound Builders’ always was one of Lanford Wilson's Big Question plays—easier to admire, perhaps, than to embrace.”  Winer found that “the revival at the Signature Theatre digs passionately for signs of what we've been missing after the loss of Wilson” but “still doesn't pull together the many exquisitely considered threads” of the play.

“Wilson's dark, down-home tragedy” which is “tossed at you in fragments,” observed Michael Feingold in the Village Voice, “infuses a puzzling form with a Chekhovian spirit.”  Feingold explained that “the play's jagged shape and overlapping dialogue make its narrative tricky to parse.”  Though the Voice review-writer felt that the production “lacks vibrancy,” he also declared that “the play, big, powerful, and quirky, demands to be seen.”  The New Yorker dismissed Mound Builders by declaring, “The cultural, historical, and economic issues raised by the play hit their targets, but the emotional ones misfire.”

In Back Stage, reviewer Erik Haagensen asserted that “the show takes too long to start cooking” because, though “the playwright’s subtle slices of exposition [need] to be delivered with maximum clarity,” that doesn’t always happen in the STC revival.  While he pronounced Mound Builders “minor Wilson,” however, Haagensen concluded that “even in a flawed production it packs a walloping final payoff.”  David Cote called Mound Builders “a fitfully compelling but schematic piece” in Time Out New York, but characterized Jo Bonney’s STC revival as a “warm, cohesive production.”  “Wilson’s careful mapping of his characters’ inner territories” is “impressive,” insisted Cote, but “the play wobbles between self-conscious poetics and highbrow soap opera.” 

On line, the reviews were mostly parallel to the printed press.  In the Huffington Post, however, David Finkle heaped high praise on the play, spending half his column on the play’s and Wilson’s virtues and the playwright’s and script’s history with the Circle Repertory Company.  Dubbing Mound Builders Wilson’s “best work” (alongside another neglected script, 1998’s Sympathetic Magic), when Finkle finally got around to writing about the STC revival, he stated, “it does very little to recapture Wilson's memorable achievement.”  He insisted that “the finesse required to maximize Wilson's manuscript is completely lacking” compared to the Circle Rep première, for which he blames a cast who “don't rise to the occasion.”  (Finkle actually ended by recommending watching the video of the 1976 PBS Theatre in America broadcast.) 

While Mound Builders does indeed contain a few glimmering gems,” affirmed Matthew Murray on Talkin’ Broadway, he added, “Good luck, however, locating meaning—or anything else—beneath the teeming excesses of this simultaneously overwrought and underthought production.”  Though Bonney “coaxed workable designs” for the revival’s physical production, she “hasn’t fused any of the other elements into an evening cohesive enough to bring alive either history or those seeking to understand it.”  Murray put some blame on Wilson because, the reviewer asserted, “[t]he play itself does [Bonney] few favors, wobbling as it does unconvincingly between” two disparate locations, but the production doesn’t help as “none of it has the impact it might because Bonney and the actors conduct the action as though they’re sleepwalking through a Bertolt Brecht rehearsal.”  Still, Murray conceded that Mound Builders is “still a well-rounded piece with plenty to excavate.  Unfortunately, it’s difficult to imagine a flatter or more hollow rendering of it than this one.”  On TheaterMania, Brian Scott Lipton described the play as “dense and layered” with “many keen, lyrical speeches and the numerous inherent lessons Wilson wants us to contemplate.”  Lipton warned, however, that Mound Builders “can come off as talky, pretentious, and slightly perplexing.” 

Here's an odd conundrum: I generally don't like clowning, but I delighted in Old Hats.  I generally like Lanford Wilson, but I was completely put off by The Mound Builders.  Despite Wilson’s own putative devotion to the play, it’s generally admired for its intellectual ambitions but not beloved as a stage work.  According to several commentaries, the play is more highly regarded by readers of the published text than by people who’ve seen it staged.  As George Bernard Shaw said of democracy, The Mound Builders apparently “reads well; but it doesn’t act well.”

[STC's The Mound Builders is one of two Lanford Wilson revivals on the boards in New York City now.  The Roundabout Theatre Company is currently presenting Talley's Folley, Wilson's 1979 romantic comedy, at the Laura Pels Theatre on W. 46th Street.  The original Talley's Folly premièred on Broadway on 20 February 1980, won that year's Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and ran for 286 performances.  It is the second play in the Talley Trilogy which also includes Fifth of July (1978) and Talley & Son (1985).  I said that I liked Lanford Wilson’s plays; Talley’s Folly, which I saw on Broadway with Judd Hirsch and Debra Mooney (who replaced Trish Hawkins) in October 1980, is one reason I do.  The Roundabout production of Talley's Folly opened on 5 March and is scheduled to run through 12 May.]

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