Susan Sontag Gets a Bad Production; Cobb Is a Happy Surprise

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Alice in Bed By Susan Sontag

The O'Neill and Williams plays that made van Hove notorious in New York, let's remember, were by dead canonical authors, classics long in public circulation that were due for radical freshening. Susan Sontag's Alice in Bed is a first play that has never been seen in New York before. It's extremely hard to see the point of any premiere production that, in the name of free creativity and open-minded collaboration, renders large swathes of a drama's content incomprehensible. As it happens, I have read Alice in Bed and seen it twice before?in the 1993 world premiere in Berlin, directed by Robert Wilson, and the 1996 American premiere in Cambridge, MA, directed by Bob McGrath. For more than half of van Hove's 75-minute staging, however, even I had no idea what was going on.

Sontag's protagonist is a conflation of two 19th-century Alices: the one invented by Lewis Carroll who goes to Wonderland and the real-life Alice James, the brilliant and depressive sister of William and Henry James, who became a neurasthenic invalid, rarely left her bed and died young and unfulfilled, leaving a remarkable diary that was published posthumously. The play thus riffs freely on fictional and historical material, fusing a precocious child with a stunted adult, an explorer with a recluse, and an external with an internal adventurer, in an elaborate meditation on the relationship of female social identity to imagination and creative will.

With Alice planted center stage in her bed most of the time, the action careens from realism with absurd accents (clownish men named M1 and M2 deposit piles of mattresses on her, for instance) to fantasy flashback (she visits her father, asks for permission to kill herself and then unscrews and attacks his wooden leg) to compensatory imaginative socializing (as in a tea party she hosts for Margaret Fuller, Emily Dickinson, Kundry from Parsifal and Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, from Giselle). All this and more adds up to a challenging puzzle in its own right, apart from any interpretive staging decisions, which is why Robert Wilson's quietly modest approach (done on a sand floor with a plain cyclorama and only a few simple wood-slat constructions as furniture) remains the most effective I've seen, despite the ineptitude of its comedy and its irritatingly ponderous music.

Van Hove's main conceit is to transform the 12-character play into a two-hander?more accurately, into a solo piece with one other live actor added near the end. Joan MacIntosh (whose astonishing energy and spitfire emotional transformations were key to the success of More Stately Mansions) presides as Alice, perched center stage almost the entire time on a sort of surreal dentist's chair molded to the back of her body, as the other characters "visit" her in the form of video images. There are no mattresses or clownish servants. She is surrounded by a forest of suspended objects that she occasionally manipulates and that float up and down when she sleeps (teapots, numerals, books, colored squares, a leg), as well as by sleek metal rods rising from the floor and a gauze canopy that descends to form a circular projection screen (design by Jan Versweyveld).

For about 10 or 15 minutes, the pleasure of looking at this remarkable environment is admittedly enormous. With her ghostly pallid face and huge round eyes, MacIntosh leaps straightaway into a series of Jekyll-and-Hyde character switches that make it great fun to think about the diminutive world she has created in her isolation. Now she is a timid and mousy invalid, in the next breath a sadistic nurse demanding that the invalid get up, then again the shy girl answering back. Unfortunately, this solipsism turns out to be the only idea worthy of the name in the production?everything and everyone around her is really just a figment of her brain. It quickly becomes clear that van Hove has nothing else substantial in his pocket.

Her visit with her father, for instance, is an encounter with a large black-and-white image of a man's face upstage whose mouth only occasionally moves in synchrony with his words (sometimes it moves in slow motion, other times not at all, other times while superimposed on an image of her face). Then essentially the same disorienting techniques are used in triplicate and in color for the filmed visit of her brother Henry (whom she calls Harry), utterly obscuring the emotional and psychological content of the meeting (which Sontag endowed with a strangely tender passive-aggression on both the characters' parts). The self-important techno-gimmickry is multiplied still further in the tea-party scene, making it all but impossible for the audience to know who anyone is, much less what they're talking about: unidentifiable pretty people and images just spin about like patterns in a kaleidoscope while MacIntosh tosses her head. And by the time Alice starts sing-speaking and then chanting her words in the middle of a long monologue describing an imaginary trip to Rome, van Hove seems to have abdicated entirely, confessing his cluelessness in the face of a text that holds little interest for him.

That's probably an exaggeration, but only a slight one. The beginning and end of the play clearly interest him, allowing him to strike his single note boldly and then tease us by suggesting it may have been a false one. In the penultimate scene, a preternaturally perceptive, Shavian burglar enters, played by Jorre Vandenbussche, and draws Alice temporarily out of her shell?a very touching episode given intense sensuality by both actors. Too bad the audience is thoroughly annoyed and exhausted by that point.

Which brings me back to the question of what the point of the production might be. Sontag recently called van Hove "one of the most important living directors," so I take it she's simply happy to give him her text and watch him work, whatever he comes up with. She is known to take an enlightened, laissez-faire attitude toward authorial authority, considering plays in production the property of their directors and brushing off bad productions as incentives for other directors to do better. Perhaps, then, under the circumstances, the only important uncertainty is whether a decent director could conceivably come away from this production curious enough about the text to want to do it again at all.

New York Theater Workshop, 79 E. 4th St. (betw. Bowery & 2nd Ave.), 460-5475, through Dec. 9.

Cobb By Lee Blessing

Cobb was a happy surprise for me. I'm not sure exactly what I expected from a play about one of baseball's greatest players and most infamous assholes, but my loose preconceptions certainly fell more along the lines of dull historical drama than the thoughtful and punchy rumination on American memory and myth that Lee Blessing has written. The usual difficulty with drama about distasteful figures is that everyone's best energy?the author's, actors' and audience's?goes into the prurient details of the distastefulness, shortchanging illuminating matters of context. Blessing has cleverly circumvented this by giving his protagonist no one to abuse but himself.

There are three Ty Cobbs on the stage, at three different ages, all ostensibly dead and looking back on their common life as both a biographical narrative strategy and as part of an effort to reassure themselves about that biography's "greatness." Acted with magnificent angry energy by Michael Cullen, Matthew Mabe and Michael Sabatino, they argue back and forth about the proper measure of greatness while describing events that are sometimes so violent and disgusting that their depiction would surely have pulled the play into obscenity. The moment when they all pull guns on each other is a sardonic gem that will stick in my memory for a long time.

Also present is Oscar Charleston, the great Negro League player known as the Black Cobb (acted with suave exaggerated confidence by Clark Jackson), against whom Cobb himself avoided playing, the drama suggests, giving him yet one more reason to doubt his true greatness after death. Here as well, Blessing avoided the obvious pitfall, sanctimoniousness, by dint of sheer intelligence (what Charleston says is always interesting in its own right, never merely bait for Cobb), aided by the first-rate acting. Joe Brancato's production is quick (75 minutes), smooth, stubby, gruff and abrasive all at once, just like its subject.

Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christopher St. (Bedford St.), 239-6200.

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