Wrong Mountain Is Enjoyable, But Often Wrong

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

Wrong Mountain
By David Hirson

By the time this
goes to press, David Hirson’s Wrong Mountain, the only new nonmusical
to open on Broadway this season, will already be under tremendous pressure to
close. This is sad, not only because my expectations were extremely high for
this second play by the author of the brave, smartly wacky and ill-fated La
, but also because the fault is clearly Hirson’s this time.
That deprives me of the pleasure of composing a jeremiad about the guardians
of middlebrow normalcy who still pose as critics in our dailies and who sneered
La Bête into financial oblivion in 1991 after 24 performances.
Nine years ago, one couldn’t help admiring the chutzpah of Hirson and company
in bringing directly to Broadway a play of ideas not trivialized and speciously
packaged like Peter Shaffer’s–set in 17th-century France and written
in heroic couplets, no less. Today, with a nonrhyming prose drama whose contemporary
setting is only half-conceived, the choice of Broadway seems foolhardy and rash.

Wrong Mountain is
about a bitter, unread and snobbishly arrogant poet named Henry Dennett, played
by Ron Rifkin, who makes a $100,000 bet with his ex-wife’s fiance, a popular
Broadway playwright named Guy Halperin (Michael Winters), that he "could
knock off a play and get it produced, all within six months." He makes
clear, in silver-tongued tirades, that he has no respect for the theater, but
in order to win the bet he endures the humiliation of a play competition and
group development process at a provincial festival. Here, in the company of
Davis’ deliciously kindly and histrionic character Maurice Montesor, a
troupe of actors and two other playwrights, Dennett displays the collaborative
spirit of a leashed cat–until he drinks from a local, foul-smelling tourist
attraction known as the "Lithia Fountain," and undergoes a miraculous

Much of this is dreadfully
schematic and far-fetched, among other problems. Imperious Dennett accuses Halperin
of spending his "entire life climbing the wrong mountain," then effortlessly
scales that mountain himself without explaining why he would stoop to debate
with such a "pornographer," much less try his craft. That craft–serious
playwriting–is falsely presented as a viable and recognized path to riches
and celebrity in America, even though Hirson’s own deflating satire of
the theater festival implies that he knows it isn’t. What ought to be a
real debate, fueling an action of ideas, about the nature of art-making never
really rises above static monologue since the one character who stands up to
Dennett intellectually (the young playwright Clifford Pike, played with touchingly
confident timidity by Daniel Jenkins) effectively drops out of the action after
his articulate challenge. Dennett, moreover, is drawn as such a myopic, overweening
ass that, particularly in Rifkin’s severe and overwrought portrayal, it’s
unimaginable that any self-respecting theater folks would put up with his abuse
for five minutes.

All of this is very troubling.
What keeps it from ruining the evening entirely, however, is Hirson’s tongue-in-cheek
tone, which infuses even the scenes that don’t make any sense with a certain
sparkle and heat. The furiously choleric Dennett, for instance, suffers from
a 40-pound intestinal parasite (briefly seen at one point), which becomes particularly
virulent when exposed to corn (get it?). This he learns from a doctor (splendidly
played by Tom Riis Farrell) whose wonderfully droll absence of sympathy provides
a hint of what a fully drawn dramatic foil for Dennett might look like ("Are
you finished?" is his reaction to Dennett’s howl of pain).

Hirson has a shrewd way
of lifting up dull spots with priceless passing remarks, such as: "It’s
the kind of place where they tear down an old barn and build a new barn and
hang a sign on it that says, ‘Ye Olde Barne.’" Such bon mots,
many made by Dennett’s grown children, almost compensate for the tense,
climactic family exchange that comes off as a feeble last-minute attempt to
lend his character psychological depth. Hirson knows how to squeeze residual
comic juice out of very old gags: Montesor works his way through a remarkable
string of wrong names for Dennett, for instance, culminating in "Heinrich
Himmler" and "Adolf Hitler." At one point, Orphan Annie and Maria
from The Sound of Music appear out of the blue, for the sheer, pretension-puncturing
fun of it–a bizarre and inspired bit of silliness that recalls the maid
in La Bête who, with equally little justification, speaks only
in monosyllables rhyming with "do."

Director Richard Jones keeps
things moving as well as can be expected, given the proliferation of potholes
and construction sites not marked in Hirson’s road map. Similarly, the
set (designed by Giles Cadle) contains a few funny visual one-liners–a
section of a bookshop whose single, absurdly long shelf is marked "NEMATODES,"
for instance, and a statue of Lithia that looks like the Columbia Pictures lady
in a corn-stalk crown–though it never strikes a strong, coherent note.
Other noteworthy performances are given by Mary Schmidtberger as Winifred Hill,
a festival playwright amusingly pumped full of paisley-print earnestness, and
Bruce Norris as Dennett’s son Adam, a convincingly inflexible version of
the flexible father Hirson seems to think he wrote.

In any case, the most perplexing
question this play raises is how the author of a work as subtly sophisticated
as La Bête could fall into such elementary failures of sense and
plausibility. For what it’s worth, I offer this desultory speculation:
La Bête deals with the discord in a famous French acting troupe
after its aristocratic patron insists that a popular, ignorant and amazingly
conceited street performer be accepted as a member. The presence of aristocratic
authority thus solves myriad problems of circumstantial plausibility in that
play, since fear of the aristocrat’s reaction justifies almost anything,
since Hirson’s modern spectators know little about social details of the
age, and since the whole play is spiced with nonrealistic anachronisms in any
case. The rhyming couplets, delightful in their cleverness, are also a wonderfully
reflexive device relating to the plot’s main debate about self-conscious
self-importance in art.

The contemporary circumstances
of Wrong Mountain, by contrast, obligated Hirson to pay dues to the realism
of situations his audience understood well, and he seems to have lost patience
with this, apparently hoping that his quasi-farcical atmosphere would suffice
as a general elixir. It won’t, and the dialogue contains no cleverly reflexive
flourishes (like, say, rhyme) to steer attention away from the plausibility
problems and toward the creative act itself. The nearest approximation is the
occasional inaccurate quotation or unacknowledged repetition of previously heard
bits of eloquence by Dennett, Montesor and others–which comes off as an
interesting if rudimentary attempt to deflate the idea of originality. Strangely
enough, this piece, as it stands, suggests that classical form, with all its
tactical distance and artificial constraints, may be Hirson’s true metier
and contemporary storytelling his "wrong mountain."

Eugene O’Neill Theater,
230 W. 49th St. (betw. 8th Ave. & B’way), 239-6200, through March 11.