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A CurtainUp DC Review10th Contemporary American Theater Festival
Something in the Air | Miss Golden Dreams | Mary & Myra | Hunger
CLICK ON THE PLAY TITLE ABOVE TO SKIP DIRECTLY TO ITS REVIEW.
The world just opens up when you don't
give a good goddam about anyone else.
--Nurse Holloway, Something in the Air
SHEPHERDSTOWN, W. Va. And thus is a selfless soul rescued from her misguided need to rescue others in Richard Dresser's deliciously nasty satire, Something in the Air, easily the most entertaining entry in the Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd College.
Now celebrating its 10th season, the CATF dishes up a flavorful mix of comedy and drama in a four-play rotation. Dresser's dark comedy skewers the American obsession with striking it rich and delivers two hours of (almost) non-stop laughter in the process. Other entries include Miss Golden Dreams, a Play Cycle, by Joyce Carol Oates, whose subject is Marilyn Monroe; Mary and Myra, by Catherine Filloux, which deals with Myra Bradwell's efforts to release Mary Todd Lincoln from confinement in an insane asylum; and the fanciful Hunger, by Sheri Wilner, about a woman with an insatiable appetite for something she can't quite express.
Walker (Lee Sellars) wanders mistakenly into the office of Neville (Michael Goodwin), whom he believes to be "the best analyst" in New York. After confessing his failures he learns Neville is the best financial analyst. Whoops. No matter. Neville convinces him to take a chance on a no-lose investment--buying life insurance policies of terminally ill individuals.
But when Neville takes Walker to meet his mark, a terminally ill and irritable travel agent named Cram (Anderson Matthews), Walker finds himself unable to regard the man as a mere investment. He attempts to befriend him in his final hours, to Cram's annoyance. Things get complicated when Walker falls like a rock for the lovely Sloane (Babo Harrison), who already has a relationship (we won't say what) with Cram and has positioned herself to snag him because she resents being written out as beneficiary. When Cram fails to die on schedule, Walker enlists the aid of an altruistic nurse (Brandy Burre) to speed him along to the Paradise.
Dresser's is the only play in the festival that isn't a world premiere, but he did rewrite act one for this performance. So it's no surprise that the weaker moments are in Act II, when Dresser seems a bit pressed to engineer a payoff to match his hilarious setup. He manages to get there, however, and most theater-goers probably won't mind that his resolution is just a little too easy.
The festival is nothing if not pretty, with sets by Markas Henry, costumes by Anne Kennedy and Moe Schell, lighting by James Fulton and Micheal S. Foster, and sound by Kevin Lloyd. It's all fine work, so fine that it occasionally overwhelms the play it purports to serve. There's a moment in Miss Golden Dreams when that famous Happy Birthday Mr. President Dress, rendered 10 times larger than life, descends slowly from the heavens -- and the point is made with that bit of stagecraft better than any line of dialogue could ever make it -- how the public image of Marilyn Monroe swallowed the real woman whole.
But as Herendeen pointed out in his curtain speech, these are works in progress, and the audience plays a vital role in bringing them along. Let's hope that Joyce Carol Oates was paying attention, then, to the polite applause that greeted her treatment of an already exhausted subject.
Miss Golden Dreams purports to examine the seamy side of Marilyn Monroe's short day in the sun, but to what end? Oates offers the amazing insight that Marilyn Monroe traded on her sexuality for love (No!) then repeats this point ad nauseum for the next two hours. Through a series of vignettes -- what she calls a play cycle -- she proceeds to show us how poor Norma Jean foundered under the influence of a succession of jerky guys. From Joe DiMaggio to JFK, the men in her life are relentlessly crass.
In Oates's rendering, Arthur Miller -- only our greatest living playwright -- is a pathetic cuckold who can merely bleat: "Did you fuck him? Did you come?" over and over again for 20 endless minutes while Marilyn prances about in a nightgown.
All of this would be forgivable, of course, if Oates had managed to structure a play in which something actually happened. As it is, Oates seems to think that staging well-publicized moments from Monroe's life -- that billowing white dress over the street grate, for example, and the Madison Square Garden birthday party for JFK-- is a reasonable substitute for drama.
Worse, while Oates laments the exploitation of Norma Jean Baker, she subjects her poor actress to the humiliation of getting naked on stage not once but twice in the same play -- and for no good purpose in either case. Why Oates feels it necessary to recreate on stage the now-famous nude photo shoot that Monroe made when she was a hungry nobody, I cannot guess, but there she is -- buck naked against a red velvet background while the strobe light flashes and then -- the lights come up full and the audience gets an eyeful. Exploitation? Stacey Leigh Ivey, call your agent.
Herendeen made much of the fact that he committed to producing this work based on only two brief scenes that Oates had finished earlier in the year. Too bad he didn't wait to see more, maybe he would have passed -- at least for another season -- so that Oates could have had time to write a play that worked. As it is, Oates tells me nothing that I did not already know about the short miserable existence of this century's most celebrated sex symbol. And despite Herendeen's best efforts with some truly lovely stagework, as well as an amazing characterization by Ivey (who captures Monroe's voice and manner perfectly), no one can save Oates from herself. In the end, Miss Golden Dreams is a crashing bore.
Abraham Lincoln -- the "Great One," as Mary calls him -- was ten years dead when their son Robert ordered up an insanity trial that resulted in his mother's commitment to an asylum in Batavia, Illinois in 1875. Myra Bradwell, an old friend, worked tirelessly for her release. What actually transpired between them is lost to history. In 1928, Robert Todd Lincoln's estate purchased their letters from Myra's granddaughter and destroyed them.
But playwright Catherine Filloux hangs plenty of flesh on the thin bones of the public record. To her credit, she renders Mary Todd a creature of contradiction, at once petulant and impossible, demanding and clear-eyed, unable to contain the sharp tongue that so offends her thin-skinned eldest child. Myra Bradwell is equally complex, a grieving mother and shrewd businesswoman, a lawyer denied the right to practice on the basis of her sex. Their sparring over tactics and politics comprises much of the conflict.
Neither woman fulfills 19th century -- or even 20th century -- notions of what a good woman is. Myra's ambition appalls Mary, and Mary's impolitic outbursts exasperate Myra. But both are driven by rage against a patriarchy that measures sanity according to a rubric of compliance. Having witnessed the murder of her husband and suffered the deaths of three sons, Mary was rightly traumatized, overly fearful for Robert's safety, unnaturally attached to possessions that carried memories of happier days. None of this would have offended anyone had she remained silent. Instead, she lobbied loudly for a better pension and thereby antagonized the very people who could have protected her.
Filloux is well-served by director Lou Jacob, whose sure hand is so strong that it is almost unseen. Jacob simply allows this fine play to be, feeling no compunction to stamp it with a director's conceit. Under his direction, the play moves fluidly in the confined space of the black box stage, a succession of lovely stage pictures and one heart-stopping moment that brings poor Mary's agony vividly to life.
Babo Harrison's range amazes -- she plays the ditzy Sloane in Dresser's comedy -- but here, as Myra, she is a determined woman afraid of her deepest grief. Rosemary Knower is compelling as Mary Todd. A petite, mature actress, Knower is physically perfect for the part, but she is also deeply sympathetic, finding light and dark in her character, and granting her a strong, affectionate spirit. Throughout history, Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln have often portrayed as a tragic mismatch, but in the hands of Knower and Filloux, it is easy to see what drew the Great One to this small, but powerful woman.
Nevertheless, with only three characters and one piece of furniture -- a bed -- the play will probably earn repeated stagings by cash-strapped theater companies. Before that happens, I hope Wilner takes another stab at the script.
In Hunger, Diana (Stacey Leigh Ivey) and Adam (Greg Baglia) are newly engaged, staying the night in his family's tumble-down vacation home on Nantucket, where the sidewalks roll up early. Diana is busily gobbling up everything in the house, but her hunger is more spiritual than physical. Out of the ocean deep comes Seymour (Reese Madigan), to woo her with a platter of raw oysters and promises of something more... and Diana finds herself drawn away from the placid and predictable Adam.
It's a slight bit of fancy -- eventually Diana takes off with Seymour, only to repent and return -- and it's entertaining as it unfolds, but Wilner gives us precious little to go on. What exactly is Diana's problem, anyway? All we know of her is that she is a waitress engaged to Adam, but why that engagement should stir such anxiety in her is not explained. Adam appears to be a nice enough fellow, if a bit unrealistic in his ambitions to make a permanent home of the summer house.
Other than that, we know nothing, and even at sixty minutes, the play begins to drag.
CurtainUp's feature on CATF