Kenneth Lonergan is the Real Thing; Jon Robin Baitz Isn’t; Edward Bond’s Saved

Written by Jonathan Kalb on . Posted in Posts, Theater.


I don’t
know whether Kenneth Lonergan is a great dramatist. Let’s talk about that
in 50 years, maybe. After seeing three of his plays, though–This Is
Our Youth
, The Waverly Gallery and now Lobby Hero (I haven’t
yet seen the Oscar-nominated You Can Count on Me, which he wrote and
directed, but will now do so as soon as possible)–I’m ready to declare
that he’s the real thing. His works are written in deliberate defiance
of deadly sameness, taking ordinary, expected, sometimes utterly banal situations
and transforming them into the stuff of thrilling discovery–primarily by
focusing on the ostensibly simple pictures long and hard enough to draw out
the complicated moral goo beneath them.


This is not,
thankfully, another extension of the sort of neo-neorealism lately advocated
by dramatists like Richard Maxwell and Tom Donaghy, which values banal surfaces
for their own sake and fetishizes affectlessness. Particularly This Is Our
Youth
and Lobby Hero suggest something more like a neo-existentialist
drama that has absorbed the lessons of deep focus and the long take from neorealistic
film and married them to pressing questions of moral choice, as in Sartre and
Camus. We may not live in a calamitous age like the 1940s, when questions about
how ordinary people behave in extreme situations were of immediate relevance,
but Lonergan seems to be saying that, in a way, that’s unfortunate. No
one longs for another world war, presumably, but there is a sense in which our
failure to ask and refine such questions, to figure out how they fit into our
routine, humdrum, tube-soaked lives, is a capitulation to moral laziness and
complacency.


The titular
character in this new play, directed by Mark Brokaw, is Jeff, a night-shift
security guard who minds the desk in the nondescript lobby of a Manhattan high-rise.
Played by lanky Glenn Fitzgerald, Jeff is a happy-go-lucky white kid with a
wry sense of humor who got kicked out of the Navy for smoking pot and is regarded
"as a project" by his black boss William, played with wonderful strength
and clarity by Dion Graham. Proud of his own ambitiousness and upstanding honesty,
William lectures Jeff about self-esteem, but on the night the play begins, he’s
troubled by the arrest of his hoodlum brother in connection with an horrendous
murder. The background question to the whole story is whether William will lie
to provide his brother an alibi, compelled by the incompetence of the public
defender and a general conviction that the court system is unfair to blacks.


On top of this,
Lonergan overlays a mini-soap opera involving a pair of cops: a pretty, redheaded
rookie named Dawn (Heather Burns), whom Jeff has a crush on, and her handsome,
mustached villain of a partner, "supercop" Bill (Tate Donovan). Married
Bill has been screwing Dawn but also taking long "breaks" in a female
friend’s apartment in Jeff and William’s building while Dawn cools
her heels in the lobby, and Jeff lets her know the truth while awkwardly hitting
on her. This exposes her to the fury of Bill’s extortionate malice, though,
and the only way she can think of to save herself is by exploiting Jeff. Ostensibly
concerned only with pure measures of right and wrong, she takes advantage of
his desire to be open with her, milking him for information about William and
his brother. To Lonergan’s credit, there are no pure motives in this play.
It’s all about figuring out how to navigate a sea of impure ones without
resorting to the piracy of Bill and his ilk.


Neither the
play nor the production is problem-free. Dawn is too dumb, naive and incredulous
at the beginning, for instance, to justify her articulate, philosophy-seminar
shouting match with Jeff later on. Fitzgerald’s downcast eyes and bemused
deadpan capture the joker in Jeff, but the "easygoing" and "calming"
presence William describes eludes him. Also, the usually reliable Brokaw never
solved several key staging problems–a supposedly private conversation by
the building door, for instance, leaves Jeff in a confusing limbo of dim light.


Still, Lobby
Hero
is impressive work. You have to see it to appreciate Lonergan’s
gift for fascinating misdirection regarding power relations: the question of
who needs whom in Jeff and William’s opening dialogue, for instance, and
the long delay before we know for certain that Bill is a slimeball. Also remarkable
is the way the static lobby situation–in which no resident is ever seen
coming or going–becomes a sort of ideal intellectual incubator. Not all
security guards are inclined to thoughtfulness, but the job does provide time
for it, and Lonergan has a gift for tapping that droning, nagging patter inside
people’s heads that drives them to fill in silences tellingly whenever
someone else is present.


In the end,
nebbishy Jeff has as much to do with Sartre’s Garcin in No Exit
as with Miller’s soul-searching cop Victor Franz in The Price. Everyone
spills their guts to Jeff without once straining probability, talking their
way into a morally revelatory space they don’t deserve, where they can
clearly judge themselves. Then, without any phony epiphanies, they move on to
figure out how to live with what they see. With or without an Oscar win–okay,
slightly more without–my money’s on a bright future for Lonergan.


Playwrights
Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St. (betw. 9th & 10th Aves.), 279-4200, through April
15.


 


Ten
Unknowns
By Jon Robin Baitz Mitzi Newhouse Theater


I wish I could
say the same about Jon Robin Baitz, whose Ten Unknowns has a more realistic
surface than anything by the neo-neorealists. This play, however, is a textbook
example of getting the surface perfect at the expense of almost everything that
matters beneath. Baitz set out to write about painting and originality in artmaking,
but found he hadn’t a single original insight into those subjects. He therefore
settled for a compilation of received ideas and cliches, more evasive, in its
way, than John Patrick Shanley’s recent substitution of huffing and puffing
for artistic creation in Cellini at Second Stage.


Donald Sutherland
heads up the first-rate cast in this production directed by Daniel Sullivan,
playing Malcolm Raphelson, a figurative painter rejected in the age of abstract
expressionism who went off to Mexico to nurse his wounds and stayed there for
decades. The action takes place in his dirty but orderly south Mexico studio–designed
with clinical accuracy by Ralph Funicello–where we learn that, after years
of blockage, he’s suddenly become fruitful again. The icebreaker was the
arrival of a young assistant named Judd Sturgess (Justin Kirk), a talented painter
with a history of undermining himself with drugs and booze. Judd is the former
boyfriend of Malcolm’s greedy art dealer, Trevor Fabricant (Denis O’Hare),
who seems to have presold the new works before Malcolm has agreed to sell or
exhibit them. By the appearance of the fourth character, a biology grad student
named Julia Bryant (Julianna Margulies), in Mexico to study endangered native
frogs, any spectator who doesn’t suspect that Judd probably painted Malcolm’s
new work has probably been asleep.


Julia is the
witness Baitz obviously thought he needed for the showdown between Malcolm and
Judd that he never quite got around to writing. She seems to exist now solely
because everyone knows that science students are always exploited by their professors,
and that provides a neat echo. An echo of what, though? Every time the action
gets near the expected meaty, private conversation between artist and assistant,
which might seize on the issue of collaborative creation and take the play someplace
unpredictable, it’s deflected by some cheap coincidence (a drinking jag,
a sudden entrance, a telephone ring). Thus, in the age of digital sampling,
Internet data networks and electronic libraries, Baitz pretends that the sanctity
of individual creation is inviolable–tucking his copout into a single line
about "joint custody" being impossible to work out.


The old romantic
notion of the single, promethean creator-artist, armored in his sacred copyright,
is of course the main legal and social pillar beneath bloodsuckers like Trevor
Fabricant, and clearly Baitz didn’t notice that. If he had, I wonder how
likely it would’ve been that his play would be seen at Lincoln Center,
or would soon be transferring to Broadway. Deadly sameness indeed.


Mitzi Newhouse
Theater, 150 W. 65th St. (betw. B’way &Amsterdam Ave.), 362-7600,
through April 15.


 


Saved
By Edward Bond Theatre for a New Audience (closed)


I was glad
to see Edward Bond’s Saved, the play that ended censorship in England
in 1968, given its first major New York production in three decades, but I thought
it fairly obvious that the director Robert Woodruff didn’t understand the
world of the drama. I’ve heard through the grapevine that Bond was present
in rehearsals and exerted enormous influence over this production, and that
puzzles me even more than its predominantly favorable reviews. Perhaps Bond,
too, isn’t an ideal conduit for his terrific play at this point.


When people
feel shocked by the baby-stoning scene in Saved, they seem to interpret
their feelings as proof that the production has given the horrific act a sensible
fictional context. To me, this production did nothing of the kind. The cast
spent most of its time groping about for actions that might look persuasively
evil but were in fact flagrant indication. The self-conscious spareness of the
staging was its own sort of minimalistic crutch, the gimmicky dues to that minimalism
pretending to cover over the fluctuating, uneven quality of everyone’s
meanness.


Worse, the
lead character, Len, was simplistically misconceived as a nice guy duped by
the big bad world around him, which drained the play of interesting questions
after 15 minutes. Len must occupy a point on the spectrum of evil depicted in
this play, so the audience has reason to wonder what will happen even after
the baby is killed. Without that basic complexity, the whole thing comes off
as a grotesque experiment in fictional disaster tourism.


 

..