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A CurtainUp Review

Arthur Landsman Graham is, for better or worse, your voice to the world, Kenny, your finger on the trigger of the biggest gun that's ever been. You put him in office with your money.—Dyson, explaining to Kenny that Congressman Graham is a very different man from the Grammy who was their boyhood friend in an Illinois town.
Paul Sparks as Dyson in Lady (Photo: Sandra Coudert)
A This isn't a three guys and a girl story. The title character in the prolific and talented Craig Wright's latest play is a frisky Brittany spaniel.

Like his Pulitzer Prize nominated Pavillion, this is a reunion story. The set-up a rather typical annual hunting get-together of once closely bonded boyhood buddies whose lives have taken them on divergent paths.

As he does in all his work, Wright writes crackling dialogue peppered with meaningful pauses and likely to take unsettling turns. And while his stories take on major issues, he has us view them through a darkly comic and very personal lens: Death as in his successful HBO series, Six Feet Under; 9/11 in Recent Tragic Events, faith in Grace. In Lady the big issue is the Iraq War and that spaniel is a symbol of how war puts those still full of puppy energy in harm's way.

The play's two acts are smartly conflated into 80 intermissionless minutes. The time frame is a single morning, and the setting shifts from the edge of the woods deep into the woods. This hunters' getaway is near Bethany, Illinois where Lady's owner Kenny (Michael Shannon) and Dyson (Paul Sparks) still live —Kenny as owner of a small shirt imprinting business run mostly by two employees while he spends his time watching old cult movies and smoking pot (even the kind medically perscribed for his cancer stricken wife), and Dyson as a teacher (probably at the local high school). Graham (David Wilson Barnes), the third member of the hunting expedition returns for the annual get together and to stay in touch with the home folks who elected him to Congress twelve years earlier (a campaign supported by Kenny's financial contribution and Dyson's savvy campaign management).

The first part of the play has only Kenny and Dyson on stage. Graham hasn't arrived, and Lady has run off so what we have is a waiting game that allows us to learn bits and pieces about the problems in the men's lives, their relationships with each other, the still absent Grammy and their wives.

Once Graham and Lady do appear on scene the personal becomes very definitely political and you may find yourself wondering if Wright wasn't inspired to make his characters hunters by the brouhaha over Vice-President Dick Cheney's accidentally shooting a companion during a similar outing a few years ago. As Lady's role in the play is symbolic so, to a large extent, are the men's characters.

Real and well developed as the three men are, each does seem to represent a spectrum of the American zeitgeist: Kenny, who's fixated on mindless entertainment and drugs and wants his friends to just relax and have a good time and not let political differences spoil their outing, represents the apathetic American . . .Dyson is the political idealist whose disillusion about Graham's having turned into a political conservative fully supporting the war in Iraq (shades of Joe Lieberman) has turned into a red-hot, murderous rage since a recent speech of Graham's has made his beloved 18-year-old son Duncan determined to enlist in the Marines. . . Graham is all the cool, collected policy makers, stubbornly convinced in the righteousness of their post 9/11 actions. He uses Dyson's Bill Clinton-like womanizing to weaken his blame-placing.

However, Wright does a wonderful job establishing his premise, abetted by a crackerjack trio of actors — especially Shannon as the middle-aged stoner and Sparks as the frustrated, disillusioned idealist who hasn't given himself or his marriage a chance to grow, and for whom his son's enlistment is a final nail in the coffin of his illusions.

Dexter Bullard's direction is measured but never dull. His design team does a splendid job of transforming the Rattlestick's small stage into a forest, with John mcDermott's evocative leaf strewn forest setting at one point bathed in a magical rising sun by lighting designer Nicole Pearce.

Lady is far from a perfect play. Like so many dramas created at the height of the Iraq conflict, the now two-year-old Lady is already a bit dated and not the stuff of a great war play. The dog business is way too predictable — from the running away, to its aftermath and its use for the finale. Moreover, when Dyson and Graham get into a face to face as to what should have been done after 9/11, clever symbolism takes a way too polemical turn. Still, the realistic and often funny dialogue and the strong performances and staging go a long ways towards making this a case of the good handily outweighing the bad.

Other Plays by Craig Wright reviewed at Curtainup:
GraceCraig The set design and lighting are wonderfully evocative, Grace (Berkshires)
Melissa Arctic (DC)
Molly Delicious (LA)
The Pavilion (Berkshires)
The Pavilion (Philadelphia)
The Pavilion (also at the Rattlestick Theater)
Recent Tragic Events (DC)
Recent Tragic Events (Playwrights Horizon-NY)

Playwright: Craig Wright
Directed by Dexter Bullard
Cast: Michael Shannon (Kenny), Paul Sparks (Dyson), David Wilson Barnes (Graham)
Set Design: John McDermott
Costume Design: Tif Bullard
Lighting Design: Nicole Pearce
Sound Design: Eric Shim
Stage Manager: Katarina Renee Herrmann
Fight Choreographer: Rick Sordelet
Running Time: 80 minutes without an Intermission
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater with Barrow Street Theater at 224 Waverly Place 212/868-4444
From 8/28/08; opening 9/08/08; closing 9/28/08--extended to 10/11/08
Wed to Sat at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm
Tickets $40
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer September 7th
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