Tom Donaghy's The Beginning of August Needs Better Actors

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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 details.

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 Collection By 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 Collection 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 Knit and The Family of Mann), and she deserves every encouragement for her newfound seriousness.

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

A Lesson Before Dying By Romulus Linney

Meanwhile, 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.

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