Tom Donaghy’s The Beginning of August Needs Better Actors

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

The title of
Tom Donaghy’s new play, I take it, is meant to be mildly ironic. The action
is set in early August, but there’s an emotional chill in the air more
befitting February gloom. Fair enough. I like chills and paradoxes as much as
anyone. Trouble is, freezers have to be kept truly cold, and steamers truly
hot. The Beginning of August seems to me a textbook example of tepid
ambition dressed up as scorching innovation and icy provocation.

Directed by
Neil Pepe, Donaghy’s play is about the aftereffects of a young woman’s
unexplained flight from her home, husband and baby girl. The husband, Jackie
(Garret Dillahunt), attempts to cope by enlisting the help of various people
he’s not sure he wants around. Jackie is a bit of a control freak, burdening
those who have volunteered to do childcare with ridiculously detailed lists
and restrictive rules limiting contact with outsiders. It’s not clear whether
he’s always been this way or has taken refuge in excessive order to keep
from coming unglued; in any case, the standing joke (not really funny) is that
no one else respects his authority.

Joyce, his
recently deceased father’s stylish widow (Mary Steenburgen), imagines that
babysitting will alleviate her loneliness, but she has no real instincts for
mothering. She leaves rambling messages on people’s answering machines
and accidentally knocks over the cradle as soon as Jackie leaves for work. Ben,
a neighborhood kid who’s been painting the house (Jason Ritter), impertinently
refuses to leave at the end of the day; having flirted with Pam (Mary McCann),
Jackie’s wife, he’s now a confused knot of bravado and fantasy-driven
dutifulness. Ted (Ray Anthony Thomas), a lonely, 40-ish, African-American neighbor
who mows the lawn, has provided sexual comfort to Jackie and is now intent on
filling Pam’s shoes.

Each one of
the play’s relationships, then, contains something slightly "off,"
unexpected or just plain irritating (to Jackie and the audience), and I suppose
Donaghy deserves credit for setting this up and making it read as odd. He has
taken a conventional domestic drama about a prodigal wife, conceived in the
sweetly retrograde pattern of Daisy Foote’s When They Speak of Rita
(produced at Primary Stages last season), and reworked it in the coolly disjointed,
affectless manner of a downtowner like Richard Maxwell. Unfortunately, as is
often the case with Maxwell, the substance doesn’t justify the mannerism.
In the end, the play just isn’t about very much other than its inventory
of crotchets and not-very-amazing accidents and oversights.

The setting
is a suburban backyard in an unnamed town, smartly designed by Scott Pask (the
corner of a bright yellow house is flanked by a patch of thin, sunburnt grass,
a tall wooden fence and a bird feeder) with a hyperrealistic spareness that
promises a magnification and defamiliarization process that never arrives. Donaghy
sprinkles his characters with sundry quirks and contradictions–they change
subjects abruptly and awkwardly, for instance, dwell on pet topics too long
and speak into dictaphones with exaggerated haste–but he never whets our
curiosity about the central question of why Godot, er, excuse me, Pam, is absent.
Everyone talks and talks, dropping bits of information about her and her supposedly
damaged marriage, as they exhibit and explain themselves, but the explanations
are all clunky and schematic, and the background bits feed a hunger the play
hasn’t really generated. By the time Pam finally does return and justifies
herself with a string of seemingly inessential details, it feels as if we’ve
been drilled like schoolchildren to appreciate the deeper importance of inessential

In fairness,
I ought to mention that a different production might have given the action more
seeming depth and variety. Pepe has directed this piece strictly in accordance
with the disastrous acting theories of the Atlantic Theater’s great founding
playwright, David Mamet–meaning that no actor is permitted more than minimal
vocal inflection and no character is given emotionally coherent life through
the buildup of progressively connected signals, gestures or actions. Mamet and
his followers (such as Pepe and W.H. Macy) believe this technique liberates
a playwright’s words, allowing multiple interpretations by the audience.
My experience is that it makes plays feel stuck in dull, repetitive loops and
(particularly with weaker writers than Mamet, such as Donaghy) deadens all language
by preventing the actors from acting.

What a waste
it is to have engaged an artist as resourceful as Mary Steenburgen, only to
bar her from full expressiveness. The sole hint she gives of the extraordinary
range of animation she possesses (recall her performances in the films Melvin
and Howard
and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?) is a brief, anomalously
lively phone monologue at the start of the second act. Otherwise she recycles
the same ambiguously "wounded" vocal tone, shallow brooding demeanor
and rigid-shouldered walking stance the entire time. One waits in vain for her
irritation at Jackie to blossom into juicy exasperation, or for the suggested
sexual tension between her and the men to come to some issue, spoken or unspoken.
Such developments and discoveries are apparently taboo on Pepe’s rigidly
static grid.

There are dramas
that can bear such deliberate affectlessness. In the work of Len Jenkins, The
Talking Band and some of Maxwell’s plays, for instance, "non-acting"
works as comedy because the texts are designed as deadpan interrogations or
deconstructions of clearly identified myths. In Mamet, the themes of competitive
flimflam and life seen as a form of acting, as well as the sheer precision and
economy of the dialogue, enable the writing to stand on its own, as it were,
when it’s forced to. Part of Donaghy’s misfortune at the Atlantic
is the essential modesty of his ambition. His strength lies not in finesse with
language or insights into myth but in observation of drolly uncomfortable social
situations. The result is an edifice very much in need of actors to help hold
it up.

Atlantic Theater
Co., 336 W. 20th St. (betw. 8th & 9th Aves.), 239-6200, through Nov. 12.

The Butterfly
Theresa Rebeck

Theresa Rebeck
has obviously thought a great deal about actors and the messy humanity they
tend to spill all over writers’ nice clean plays. Her new work, The
Butterfly Collection
, debates this very point–or rather, uses a passing
disagreement about it to set up one of its main conflicts. A self-absorbed father
(a famous author) tells his equally self-absorbed son (an actor) that theater
is an "emotionally indulgent form" from which nothing truly clear
or rigorous should ever be expected. It’s not a new thought, but Rebeck
comes upon it honestly in the course of a candid searching process (about the
nature and personal cost of art-making) that pulls you in despite its inconsistencies.

The play’s
action takes place at the Connecticut country house of Nobel prize-winning Paul
(played by Brian Murray), during a rare visit by both of his sons, kind and
sensitive Frank (Reed Birney), an antiquities dealer, and angry and self-deceiving
Ethan (James Colby), the actor. Ethan can barely stand Paul, partly because
he knows how much he resembles him, but he wants to please his tritely patient
mother Margaret (Marian Seldes), who is fond of his girlfriend Laurie (Betsy
Aidem), and he mistakenly thinks that his dad is dying. In the end, Ethan’s
self-absorption, along with the arrival of a pretty writing assistant named
Sophie (Maggie Lacey), leads to a break with Laurie, a climactic verbal donnybrook
with Paul and writerly breakthroughs for both Paul and Sophie.

The Butterfly
has serious plausibility problems (Ethan’s obliviousness
is pat to the point of cliche, for instance, and no Nobel-winner would be denied
tenure for moodiness or engage in the college-workshop inanities that Paul does).
Also, Rebeck’s women are much too thinly characterized, notwithstanding
a righteous harangue by Sophie complaining that no great 20th-century male author
wrote believable women and that misogyny is "the last form of bigotry that’s
still considered hip." The Butterfly Collection is nevertheless
moving, thoughtful and endearingly messy. Rebeck’s ambition has broadened
admirably from her previous, all-too- media-friendly plays (such as Loose
and The Family of Mann), and she deserves every encouragement
for her newfound seriousness.

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

A Lesson
Before Dying
Romulus Linney

Romulus Linney has written an adaptation of Ernest J. Gaines’ novel A
Lesson Before Dying
(unread by me) that has the momentum of an academic
committee and the suspense of a church service. The production directed by Kent
Thompson is engagingly acted, mostly, but there’s something irredeemably
torpid at its center. The main problem is that the play’s only pressing
question is, dramatically speaking, disingenuous: will the young black man (who’s
about to be executed for a murder he didn’t commit in Louisiana in 1948)
die with dignity? A disaffected schoolteacher is sent by the prisoner’s
godmother to teach him to "be a man," and he finds his own teacherly
purpose in the process, but that process, too, is wholly predictable. Many useful
stories involve the inevitable and foreknown, obviously; effective dramatists
embellish the known with the surprising and unknown, to make us experience the
old as enduringly new.

Signature Theater
Co., 555 W. 42nd St. (betw. 10th & 11th Aves.), 244-PLAY, through Oct. 22.