Hollow Albee; Rebecca Gilman's Boy Gets Girl; A Couple of Plays About Outrage and Disgust

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Drama lives or dies on suspense. That may seem like a hopelessly dated or nostalgic remark in an era whose dramatic heroes include Beckett, Albee, Mamet and innumerable others who sometimes seem to throw out all the old rules. It's true even of them, though. Suspense isn't just a sticky relic from the "well-made play." It has to do with a dramatist's basic ability to raise interesting (and better yet, enduring) questions that the audience, for all its seasoned psychological insight and practiced cleverness, can't answer satisfactorily without witnessing the outcome of the play. Usually, those questions are about plot, but they can also be about emotion, character, ideas, life processes, even potentialities, the mere possibility of new twists on age-old patterns, stories, myths and more. No matter what the game, though, if the audience is consistently ahead of it, then it isn't as fun, effective or profound as it should be.

Over the past month, I've watched in bewilderment as many of my more intelligent critical colleagues have lionized Edward Albee for what was, for me, one of the most disappointing, irritating and unsuspenseful theatrical experiences in recent memory. I hesitate to accuse anyone of disingenuousness, but it has seemed to me that much of the praise for The Play About the Baby has stemmed from a reluctance to perpetuate the presumably unfair critical drubbing he has received over the years?which is tantamount to patronizing him?and perhaps (in some cases) from a schoolish confusion of intentions with results. This author has written some important and wonderfully powerful plays during his long career, but The Play About the Baby isn't one of them. Both on its mischievous surface and in its self-important depths, the work is obvious and trite.

Directed by David Esbjornson, the play is about a young couple, called simply Boy and Girl (David Burtka and Kathleen Early), whose cozy new-parental idyll is destroyed by an older couple, named Man and Woman (Brian Murray and Marian Seldes), who enter out of the blue and take their baby away. That the baby may not have existed in the first place (the only concrete evidence is the girl's offstage birthing screams and onstage nursing of a swaddled doll) is part of the play's newfangled but consistently stodgy convention of admitting that it's a play. The idea of the fictional baby has no psychological weight, because the younger characters are basically cartoons, their occasional nude romps across stage notwithstanding, and the older characters are too inanely self-involved to care about it much one way or another, even though they purport to steal it.

Albee's more credulous fans seem convinced that the Man and Woman are truly creepy and menacing as they fill time with digressive stories, declamations, gags, direct addresses to the audience and other vaudevillesque setpieces. Their exaggerated banality just reads as double-digested Beckett, Pinter and even Albee to me, though, with Murray and Seldes pretending to existential crises their characters haven't really arrived at, and affecting a fiendishness they seem to know is vitiated and derivative. They're neither actually scary nor actually entertaining, partly because Albee has dispensed here with the bitchy, charged dialogue he's best at, substituting an emotionally blank, insincere politesse that makes every remark sound like dithering. Similarly, the brazenly allegorical set?a giant pacifier and alphabet cubes with an oversized pram and rocking horse hanging overhead (design by John Arnone)?pretends to an eccentricity and provocative power it doesn't possess. It's a nostalgic throwback to one of Arrabal or Beckett's premieres in Paris, circa 1961.

Albee writes here as if he were the first modern to think of adapting the Garden of Eden story, even blithely topping off his pseudo-self-mocking allegory with a nifty, sententious moral (Man: "If you don't have a broken heart how can you know who you are, have been, can ever be?"). If this sounds familiar, well, just Try to Remember (as a friend of mine did walking out of the show). Maybe you caught the opening of a famous little sentimental musical called The Fantasticks in 1960, which is still less predictable than The Play About the Baby and is still running: "Without a hurt the heart is hollow."

Century Center, 111 E. 15th St. (betw. Park Ave. & Irving Pl.), 239-6200.

Boy Gets Girl
By Rebecca Gilman

Suspense is at the heart of Rebecca Gilman's talents. Her playwriting ambitions are much more conventional than Albee's, but within her chosen idiom of topical social drama, she's handling her tools better than he is at the moment. In interviews, Gilman has counted August Wilson among her heroes, and that comparison is telling. She focuses on catchy, movie-of-the-week themes (such as racism and white guilt, child abuse and serial murder, stalking and objectification of women) and, like him, consciously traces the detailed repercussions of such "big issues" within specific cases. The basic pattern is really that of a sermon?exemplification lending personal power to a predetermined argument or teaching?and there's a knack to handling it without sounding like a preacher. The knack involves parceling out character and background information gradually and cleverly to seduce the audience into considering tendentious ideas they may have no inclination to accept. The danger is that that calculation goes wrong and the idea-driven crisis or impasse comes to seem wholly pre-chewed, as happened in Gilman's Spinning into Butter (produced last summer at Lincoln Center). In that case, the drama seems dryly formulaic in the end regardless of its psychological insight or integrity.

Boy Gets Girl is better than Spinning into Butter. It toys with the audience's expectations more entertainingly and pertinently, disguising an intellectual thriller about stalking as a romantic comedy. The dead-on depiction of a blind date in the first scene, in which ominous hints about a man's pushiness are chalked up to nervous discomfort, is a terrific opening gambit since (especially given the play's seemingly bland title) one's mind rushes to figure out how the mismatched couple will eventually prove compatible. When the behavior of the man, Tony (Ian Lithgow), becomes inappropriate and aggressive, your memory of your own early reactions to him mingles with the serious questions about pop-culture conventions of "chasing" women that Gilman has shrewdly woven into the plot, and the effect is intense and sobering. I can't imagine Boy Gets Girl being more effectively cast than in this superb Manhattan Theater Club production, originally directed in Chicago by Michael Maggio (who died in August 2000) and "supervised" at MTC by Lynne Meadow. Mary Beth Fisher as the female lead, a journalist named Theresa Bedell, is the picture of clearheaded independence and attractive intelligence; with her Hillary Clinton hairdo and hard-edged demeanor, she seems strong enough, to begin with, to defeat Tony by dint of pure professionalism. Lithgow, in contrast, is the perfect question mark, a nasal-voiced, pompadoured, plaid-jacketed nerd whose quirks no one would consider criminal?until circumstances reveal that they are, of course. Everyone else is excellent as well, particularly Howard Witt as a potbellied soft-porn film director whom Theresa is sent to interview. And Michael Philippi's turntable set is a transformational marvel, capturing so many different New York locations so precisely that the audience gasps at each new one.

In fairness, I ought to report that this play has the audience in a tight thriller's grip at intermission. My reservations about it have entirely to do, again, with Gilman's habit of serving the needs of her controversial subject at the expense of the character psychology she has worked so hard to probe. At one point, this happens at the expense of basic plausibility: when two of Theresa's magazine colleagues, both worldly, intelligent men, suddenly become sophomoric idiots in her ransacked apartment, disturbing the crime scene just so Gilman can show them both handling Theresa's clothes and one of them confessing to the most ordinary sexual fantasies like a naive, guilt-ridden seminarian. The worthy fictions she takes the trouble to invent deserve a better fate at her hands.

Manhattan Theater Club, 131 W. 55th St. (betw. 6th & 7th Aves.), 581-1212, through April 8.

By Ferdinand Bruckner
Force Continuum
By Kia Corthron (closed)

Particularly if you aren't as facile with suspense as Gilman, another common attitude toward topical drama tacitly asserts that the issue at hand is so urgently important that nice considerations of consistent characterization, plausible situation and the like should take a backseat to the reporting of naked, quasi-documentary truths. This is the attitude of outrage and disgust at a perceived social emergency that essentially drives two plays premiered in New York this past month: Kia Corthron's Force Continuum at Atlantic Theater Company and Ferdinand Bruckner's Race at Classic Stage Company. These works were written 67 years apart. Corthron's subject is the strained relationship between blacks and the police in contemporary New York. Bruckner's is the still-shocking moral collapse in 1933 Germany across the spectrum of human relationships from official, public encounters to intimate discussions behind closed bedroom doors. Both works displayed the same occasional impatience with the very veneer of fiction, with the authors often convincing themselves that their characters were earnestly interested in red-herring statistics and digressive analysis, and both were consequently painful to watch at times. I also found myself haunted by both shows for weeks, though, no doubt because, after all is said and done, even the clumsy manipulation of real rage (as opposed to the affected kind) carries its own terribly "actual" suspense long after the depicted events have faded into posterity.

Race, at the Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13th St. (betw. 3rd & 4th Aves.), 677-4210, ext. 2., through March 11.

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