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As a fan of Leonard's Nikki and Bobby, (Our Review) which had a recent run at The Colony, I was eager to see Dylan's Ghost, on the assumption that its subject matter alone was proof of the author's range. After all, Nikki and Bobby matched a southern sheriff's deputy with a black transvestite in an ever-tightening blood knot of illicit drugs and sex. Surely, I reasoned, an interest on Mark Leonard's part in Dylan Thomas, that most lyrical of modern poets, points at the very least to a playwright whose range of subjects is either eccentric or unpredictable or both.
Unfortunately, the ten-year-old Dylan's Ghosthas many of the faults of a novice writer who has created a dramatic situation without stopping to ask what the conflict is. Surprisingly, this fatal flaw was not discovered during one of the play's previous incarnations, including its 1995 production at the Morgan-Wixson Theatre.
Actually, a more suitable title for this piece would be Nikki, Bobby, and Dylan because the author's mix of character types is very similar to his more recent work. Here, as before, the play is set on rougher side of town in New York City, with a tall, good-looking blond male running up against a small, scrappy female Other. This time the male (played by Joe DeMonico) is the New Yorker, while the female (Christy McBrayer) is a hot tamale from Texas. Not at all a bad mix, Tabasco and pastrami, only here it is more roast beef on Wonder bread, hold the mayo, since nothing ignites passion in these strangers. Oh, sure, He likes Her and all that, but what we watch unfold has none of the fire seen in Leonard's more recent work.
Of course, the bland love affair between Gaylen and Dougie is a mere subplot. What sets the action is Dougie's rather single-minded effort to set things right so that the ghost of Dylan Thomas will reappear. All must be done exactly, nothing to be seen or heard may distract the ghost, who runs to the bathroom at the sight or sound of a TV or anything else invented after his notorious death in 1953. Dougie now manages the famous White Horse Tavern where Dylan last drank himself to death, and he hopes not only to see Dylan reappear but to get proof to vindicate his father who was ridiculed and humiliated for having first announced a sighting. The audience goes along with all this, as it does in Peter Pan, because it assumes that nobody else takes it at all seriously. The problem is that the characters do in fact believe what they are saying, and we are made to believe that the author does too. How else to explain the inane psychology presented, whereby in the last scene Dougie calls his father, tearfully clutching Dylan's handwriting sample. Everything is made to pull together on what increasing becomes utterly preposterous.
And then there is the ghost. Of course, one must share the author's affection for Dylan Thomas for any of this to work. On this score, the author builds tension well, so that by the time Dylan appears we are all thrilled, only to be let down again by the writing. Elvin Whitesides gives it his all, creating a character who has some of Dylan's features, but where, for example, is the notorious womanizer? Dylan no sooner appears than he begins to treat Gaylen as a sister. A crucial dimension of his personality is lost in this milk toasty conception, not to mention the tension and conflict missed by not having Dylan and Dougie fight over Gaylen, a sexy firecracker whose fuse is allowed to go out.
Lacking sexual tension, this meeting of minds goes nowhere and began to remind me of an American version of No Exit. Three characters locked in a tavern; all they can do is to sit dreamily while Dylan spouts poetry. And this is precisely what the playwright has them do. No wonder Dylan eventually, and inexplicably, runs away to the toilet, never to return. Maybe he finally saw what began to emerge toward the end of the first act, namely, his entire life being poured down the drain to no dramatic purpose.
Playwright: Mark Leonard
Director: Mark Leonard
Jay Laisné/Kevin Brown (Billy), Joe DeMonico/Ryan Michaels (Dougie), Christy McBrayer (Gaylen), Elvin Whitesides (Dylan Thomas/Richard Jenkins).
Set Design: Rob Mulholland
Lighting Design: Richard Hellstern
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission
The Coast Playhouse, 8325 Santa Monica Boulevard, West Hollywood (323) 655-TKTS
Reviewed by David Lohrey based on performance of 11/04/00.