Overwhelming Convention: Two LAByrinth productions are re-staged; an early McGuinness fails.

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Waiting for the light to change at Broadway and 18th, the other night, I eavesdropped on a couple of guys who, like me, had just come from seeing Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Our Lady of 121st Street at the Union Square Theater. They were talking about the unconventional relationship between the set and the action of the play, hardly any of which actually takes place in the space we spend the evening looking at—a large, institutional room that, depending on how the light is falling, can look like either a funeral parlor lobby or a parochial school lounge. What’s curious is that the set should be so realistic, when—as the young men behind me were saying—we’re almost never supposed to take it literally. It’s there because most of the characters in Guirgis’ play have come to pay their respects to a teacher at the Catholic school they all attended. But Guirgis’ script seems, with the help of James Vermeulen’s artful lighting, to be forever taking us away from that room and relocating us in some even more transient place—a street corner, a confessional, a bar.

Guirgis’ characters are themselves transients of a sort. They’re latter-day O’Neill characters, damaged, disappointed and dispossessed: hookers and ex-hookers, alcoholics and lungers (well anyway, there’s an asthmatic), a closeted homosexual, an apostate amputee priest, a cop haunted by the moment of abstraction that led to his small son’s death, a man chained to his brain-damaged brother—you get the idea. Actually, Guirgis’ characters are more interesting than O’Neill’s. For one thing, they don’t keep saying the same thing over and over. Instead, they say things we haven’t heard before or have never heard expressed in quite that way. Also, they resist pity. Where O’Neill intends us to see his characters as tragic ruins of humanity, Guirgis writes in a way that commands respect rather than compassion for his characters, and he has no grand portentous literary agenda, both factors that keep his play from being a pretentious downer.

Our Lady of 121st Street was written for the LAByrinth Theater, where it was first produced last fall. Guirgis’ two earlier plays were also both written for the LAByrinth; in fact, it was the actors John Ortiz and Philip Seymour Hoffman, co-artistic directors of the decade-old theater company, who encouraged Guirgis to begin writing for the stage. Since then, the New York Times seems to have anointed him God’s latest gift to American theater. No matter. Our Lady of 121st Street is worth seeing anyway.

One reason is that it’s full of wonderful voices. Another is that the LAByrinth seems to be fast becoming what Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater was to American theater in the 80s, not only a source for interesting new work but also the source of something like an esthetic. Originally founded as a sort of haven of artistic ethnicity (the acronym in the name stands for "Latino Actors Base"), LAByrinth has begun setting a standard for direction and ensemble performance that makes a good deal of what’s around it look phony, assuming it didn’t look that way before. Some of this is surely due to Hoffman, who has staged Our Lady with the same integrity and exquisite skill that informed his direction of Rebecca Gilman’s The Glory of Living in 2001, and that he has brought to his own performances in such roles as the drag queen protagonist of Joel Shumacher’s film Flawless and Konstantin in Mike Nichols’ production of The Seagull in Central Park. Here, Hoffman has orchestrated a cast of twelve, the best of whom all seem to be company members: Elizabeth Canavan, Liza Colon-Zayas, Ron Cephas Jones, Russell G. Jones, Richard Petrocelli, Portia, Felix Solis, David Zayas—they’re too numerous to mention, but they’re all wonderful.

Our Lady of 121st Street resists the conventions of the various genres it draws upon—and, let’s face it, it contains elements of the reunion play, the nun play, even the wheelchair play—all justly despised forms. No one really gets reunited (or even reconciled) and nothing gets reaffirmed (or even affirmed). Nothing is resolved at all, and even poor Sister Rose—the disappearance of whose body provides the single strand of plot on which Guirgis has hung what amounts to a succession of wonderful episodes—remains largely unretrieved—that is, there’s less of her at the end than we started out with. It seems she has nothing more to offer her former pupils. One reason that ever-present set works so well is that it’s the play’s only concrete reference to the two things that have brought the characters together: death and the Catholic-school values they carry around with them wherever they go.

The latest from John Patrick Shanley, Dirty Story, which opened at the Harold Clurman the same week that Our Lady of 121st Street transferred to Union Square, is another LAByrinth production. To the best of my knowledge, it’s unlike anything Shanley’s ever done before, a political allegory that recasts American foreign policy and the Mideast conflict as a torrid love affair glimpsed through a gauzy veil of popular culture stereotypes. Whether you greet it with mirth or disgust will probably depend on how openminded—or confused—you are about American foreign policy. I am the very soul of confusion, so I enjoyed it immensely.

Shanley has always had a gift for creating complex, idiosyncratic characters and setting them at odds with one another. Also for making neurosis both lyrical and surreal. Also for plumbing the deep recesses of fear and desire that drive heterosexual passions and hatreds. Shanley fans will rejoice to hear that none of these elements is absent from Dirty Story. They may also be glad to learn that the play reunites the wonderful David Deblinger and Florencia Lozano, who played the mutually murderous pair locked in a battle-to-the-death marriage in Where’s My Money? (also a LAByrinth production). Here Deblinger is Brutus, a poet and essayist of gargantuan ego and intellectual capacity. Lozano is Wanda, a dewy-eyed graduate student and aspiring novelist who has sent him a manuscript. In the opening scene, set in a public park, Brutus eviscerates both Wanda and her novel, while a bumbling Englishman sits listening to Mozart on headphones, making alternately whingeing and inane observations. How quickly you begin reading between lines will depend on how attuned you are to the potential layers of meaning in references to real estate and borders and inconsequential remarks like, "Even conflict requires common ground." But even the most dogged hunter after subtext will become mystified when the second scene finds Wanda and Brutus in the midst of a romantic dinner at his place, and a comic bout of role-playing, growing out of a discussion of the sous conversation in The Perils of Pauline, turns sadomasochistically nasty.

I won’t describe the Act I curtain, though I probably could without spoiling the effect. My guess is that Dirty Story is probably critic-proof. There’s so much more going on in the play at any given moment than what is happening in the story that descriptions of this or that element leave it still-virgin territory. What delights is the phenomenon of experiencing the play on both levels, the human and the allegorical. Act II is where the fun really starts, as Lozano and Deblinger, now full-fledged embodiments of the Israeli and Palestinian viewpoints, are joined by Chris McGarry and Michael Puzzo, playing two characters named Frank and Watson, who embody America and England respectively. Questions of self-interest and historical alliance, national guilt and moral responsibility briefly surface and disappear again, eclipsed by the flashes of rage that erupt from Deblinger and Lozano or engulfed by eddies of cluelessness that swirl around McGarry and Puzzo. Shanley isn’t for or against anything or anyone. His satire takes in everyone—us, the Brits, the Israelis, the Palestinians, even the French—and he gets everyone right, too. What makes it all so delightful and disarming—in every sense—is that he isn’t looking to make any political point. He has no agenda. Even here, it’s people he’s really interested in, with the result that the pseudo-human and pseudo-political aspects in the play shed light on each other.

Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, at the Mitzi E. Newhouse, is a play that pays lip service to the idea of politics. An early work by the Irish playwright and screenwriter Frank McGuinness, it purports to explore the tragedy of the Western Front from the perspective of a platoon of Irish Protestant volunteers. In fact, McGuinness (himself a Catholic nationalist) merely uses the nationalistic and religious fervor of his characters as stepping stones on the way to the revelation that fanaticism leads to war which in turn breeds bigotry.

The play’s only other apparent point—that some members of The Lost Generation were bent—will be equally unsurprising to Lincoln Center audiences (and anyone who’s ever heard of Siegfried Sasoon). McGuinness’ hero, Kenneth Pyper, a highly articulate—and, in Justin Theroux’s self-important performance, unlikable—gay sculptor has, on the eve of the Battle of the Somme (and owing to a severe case of ennui), cut short a sojourn in Paris to enlist in the hope of getting killed. Newly arrived at his barracks, he baits and provokes his less sophisticated comrades, and after that seduces one, uncoils a bit and eventually becomes less of an outsider. Meanwhile, there is much drumbeating and tub-thumping as well as prayer, hymn-singing, and references to the Red Hand of Ulster and her rivers, islands, battles, legends, archeology and fraternal orders. It is all relentlessly tedious—the more so as Nicholas Martin has directed at a glacial pace. (The Titanic also gets considerable mention.)

It’s difficult not to draw an adverse comparison between Sons of Ulster and Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love, given the presence of Richard Easton in the cast of the McGuinness play. (It was Easton who gave such a haunting performance as the aged A.E. Houseman in Stoppard’s play last season. Here he’s utterly wasted playing Pyper at eighty, a role that gives him about five minutes onstage.) Like Sons of Ulster, Stoppard’s play was full of esoterica—classical jokes and historical references—material with which a contemporary audience could be expected to be unfamiliar. But Stoppard is actually interested in the abstractions he takes on. He dramatizes them for that very reason: to see where they will go.

McGuinness’ play fails to dramatize or contextualize anything, so that we’re forced to fall back on the poorly written and edited program notes the Lincoln Center theater has provided, which have the British following "the roles of trench warfare." To my mind, it also fails to make connections between elements in its own story. The "Carson" referred to in the phrase "Carson’s men," for instance, which the program glosses as "Sir Edward Henry Carson…dubbed ‘the uncrowned king of Ulster,’ for opposing Home Rule…") is the same Edward Henry Carson who prosecuted Oscar Wilde. Indeed, elsewhere in the world, that’s what he’s most famous for. It seems inconceivable that an Irish homosexual artist who, like McGuinness’ hero, had spent time in Paris (where Wilde died and is buried) could be unaware of this and let mention of the name pass without comment. But perhaps I’m being picky.

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