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A CurtainUp Collage Review

By Elyse Sommer

Why a Critical Collage Instead of a CurtainUp Critical Solo?

Sometimes the collage review is our way of dealing with the physical inability to be everywhere in this city of a thousand and one theatrical events. Since we consider a full archival record part of our mission, this system of gathering the views of various critics is an imperfect but feasible alternative to a one-view, in-depth review by a CurtainUp critic.

Other times the collage is our response to dealing with the glass ceiling that still overhangs an internet only publication. The case of Blue Light Company's Oedipus and Manhattan Theater Club's Corpus Christi (which opened within a week of each other in October 1998) serve as prime examples.

Blue Light while a fairly high profile small company has never been the sort of hit factory where the right to review a show was likely to be denied to all but the big guns of the media. However, the casting of two stars with their reputations solid on both screen and stage, helped to turn the planned four-hour re-telling of the Oedipus myth into something of an event. Suddenly everyone wanted to be there when the curtain rose and interest in the theater-going community began to gain steam. Result? Blue Light cut its list of invited critics.

Manhattan Theater Club's re-telling of an old story -- in this case the oldest story of all, the birth and crucifixion of Jesus Christ -- was a play which, despite the by-line of Terrence McNally, was hardly likely to be an instant sellout. Yet, without much information other than that McNally's Jesus and his disciples were gay men, a storm of protests and threats caused Manhattan Theatre Club to cancel the production giving public safety as its reason. This led to an outcry from the proponents of freedom of speech and MTC about-faced, turning its initial caving in to pressure into a public relations boosted act of bravery. Corpus Christi, even more than Oedipus, became an immediate media event. Everyone wanted to see what the fuss was all about. Seats for critics as well as non-MTC members became instantly unavailable. The above-mentioned glass ceiling that at times puts a publication like CurtainUp in the rear of the bus for invited critics The above-mentioned glass ceiling led to our being not so much bumped from this flight, as pre-empted -- thus seeding another collage review.

We've all heard stories of people who missed a flight which crashed, thus turning mishap into escape. I feel a bit like one of those serendipidous latecomers about Oedipus, the four-hour epic that just opened under the auspices of the Blue Lights Theatre Company to unanimous thumbs down reviews. You see, I was all set to see the next-to-the-last preview before the October 11th opening when the press agent called me rather sheepishly to explain that the big buzz surrounding the show had boosted early business to the point that the powers that be at Blue Lights decided to cancel out all but the "top tier" critics -- translation: critics whose publications boast large circulations.

Now these critics have broadcast their opinion to their large audiences and it looks as if this new Oedipus has landed with a crash. The concensus seems to be that even the two very capable movie actor stars, Frances McDormand and Billy Cruddup, couldn't justify four hours of self-absorbed and pretentious quasi-poetic philosophizing. Getting bumped from this lengthy ride apparently was something of a blessing in disguise. And so, without so much as a rave for the second intermission snacks, and the show's having no possibility for extending or moving, I've opted to rely on the collage opinions of my "lucky" colleagues instead of trying to schedule a post-opening review date.

Before assembling their comments into our collage, a brief summary of what this new-old epic is about:
The Oedipus made famous by Sophocles was steered by an unknown to him omen that he must kill dad and become mom's mate. Dale Clubb's Oedipus, knows what fate has decreed. He embraces the prophecy as the will of the Gods an deliberately embarks on his double crime. Since his true parents abandoned him (to escape the fated murder) and the man and woman he thought his blood kin are in fact his adoptive parents, incest becomes quasi-incest. Clubb thus puts a different and more philosophical moral spin on the saga and draws on Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonnus and a variety of other sources from Greek myth.

Ben Brantley, of The New York Times found "a certain collegiate glee in this antic scrambling of mythic literature" and thought that "Clubb has come up with some appealingly goofy, deadpan jokes that play off the work's tragic antecedents." He was less enthused about the play's more earnest (and dominating) aspects, however, declaring that "Oedipus's road to self-knowledge has never been so long and winding, an itinerary. . ." He concludes that Clubb has used what is "essentially a one-idea play" to create "a lineup of terminally self-involved creatures, out of touch with natural human feelings and paralyzed by a mindless devotion to theology and ideology." Both the playwright's reach for the poetic and his direction left Brantley underwhelmed though he thought all the actors rated praise. Like others he particularly admired Frances McDormand but noted "even she was finally done in by the endless monologues" which forced her to " voice convoluted thoughts."

Editorial Addendum October 17, 1998: Mr. Brantley's Sunday backup, Vincent Canby, was even more vehement, referring to the first and only entertaining act as smething that could have been " a rather funny revue sketch, suitable for presentation at year-end faculty revels". He likened Mr. Clubb's poetic lines as "overstuffed" so that they sound "as if they had been decorated by Laura Ashley."

Fintan O'Toole of The Daily News put a very gallant spin on the play's ultimate failure. Instead of calling Clubb grandiose, he praised him for his daring in "going head-to-head with some of the greatest plays in history." As he put it: "Against such odds, the wonder is not that Oedipus fails but that the failure is so heroic. Rather like its hero, Clubb's play marches towards its doom with dignity."

This damning with faint praise went so far as to recognize the presence of enough "poetic energy to sustain the action in the first act". The same could not be said for the two that followed and by the time O'Toole's positive spin on the "dignity of this failure" wound down, he too was ready to pull the trigger, stating " There's a touch of megalomania in all of this, and Clubb's ambition exceeds his powers." Quickly putting away his smoking gun, the kindly Irishman put the play in the framework of a larger context, which allowed him to see this ambition and the actors willing to support it as a sign for hope "for a serious theater." His paper's headline writer summed it all up with "Train Wreck that Fascinates."

Newsday critic Linda Winer found the play ''a sporadically entertaining, willfully wayward four-hour hair shirt of a would-be epic." Like the Times critic she admitted Clubb "is not without a wicked sense of whimsy and a definite grasp on a high-flying riff technique" -- a technique she said " has us wondering periodically, if he is serious" Her conclusion: "The answer is, ultimately and unfortunately, yes."

Oedipus also left Clive Barnes, whose critiques have mellowed since his days at The New York Times, in a less than benign elder statesman mode. Here's his opening salvo: "It may sound arbitrary, even harsh, but if you are going to write a play as long as Hamlet it had better be good. Dare Clubb's Oedipus, which served the admittedly admirable function of bringing back both Frances McDormand and Billy Crudup to the New York stage, is not good. " Barnes went on to say "Clubb gives the impression of being a rather clever man, but perhaps not quite as clever as he thinks. He was not clever enough, for instance, to realize that he was unwise to direct the play himself - another hand might at least have been freer with the cutting shears."

Variety critic Charles Isherwood saw little if any redeeming features: "This new spin on the legendary Greek tale is a four-hour-long orgy of self-indulgence on the part of author and director Dare Clubb, bad theater of a kind that holds no ancillary rewards — no cheesy sets to invite titters, no histrionic excesses to relish, just endless torrents of fake profundity." To prove his point, Isherwood quoted these dialogue samples: “Where do our feelings come from? What dry and windless plain?” “My thoughts pass through me as if I’m not here,” “The gods are powerful, but they’re not inhuman” (how’s that?), “The deepest reality of any fate is that it’s already happened.”

Moving on to the Associated Press. . . "Somewhere Sophocles must be spinning -- probably in perpetual motion, judging from the length of time it takes to tell a new version of Oedipus," complained Michael Kuchwara. . "Playwright Dare Clubb has managed to extend the story to more than four hours without adding any insight to the often-told tale." The AP headline writer jumped on this with "Oedipus an Endurance Test!"

As you can see the praises for Frances MacDormand (in Act 1) and complaints about the self-indulgent length were so insistent and consistent that they ended up sounding as windy as the play itself. At the risk of catching the virus, I'll put my finis on this roundup.

Written and directed by Dare Clubb
With Billy Crudup, Frances McDormand, Jeffrey Donovan, Johanna Day, Jon DeVries, Alex Draper, Jonathan Fried, Kevin Geer, Carolyn McCormick, Lawrence Nathanson, Camilia Sanes, Alan Tudyk
Set design: Narelle Sissons
Costume design: Christianne Myers
Lighting design: Chris Landy
Blue Light Theatre Company
CSC Theater, 136 East 13th Street (East Village)
Tue, Thu, Fri, Sat at 7pm; Wed, Sun at 2pm
Running time: 4 hours, 15 minutes -- cut during previews to an even but still long 4 hours! 9/20/98-10/10/98; closes 10/25/98
Collage Review by Elyse Sommer

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© Elyse Sommer, October 1998