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A CurtainUp Review
Odets tracks the growing political consciousness of Leo Gordon (David Chandler), the co-owner of a handbag factory who loses his business, his house and a child en route to knowledge of the evils of capitalism and excessive American self-reliance. Leo's son, Ben (Hale Appleman), is a former track star who has just married Libby Michaels (Merritt Janson), the daughter of motorcycle obsessive Gus (Thomas Derrah). Pearl (Therese Plaehn), Leo's daughter, is a piano player who can't catch a break romantically—her fiancée Felix (Cameron Oro) is about to skip town to find work—or professionally, since there aren't any jobs for musicians. Meanwhile, Ben's friend Kewpie (Karl Bury) lusts after Libby while trying to lure Ben into a life of organized crime. And Leo's son, Julie (T. Ryder Smith), is suffering from a degenerative sleeping sickness. Oh, and there's Leo's strong-minded wife Clara (Sally Wingert), as well as Sam (Jonathan Epstein) and Bertha (Adrianne Krstansky), Leo's business partner and his co-dependent wife. Not to mention Mr. Pike (Michael Rudko), the furnace repairman and the play's would-be leftist mouthpiece.
Odets's sprawling play has its moments of awkward earnestness and a few too many minor characters, but it crackles with a superabundance of life and slangy wit on the page. Paradise Lost premiered during the peak years of the fabled Group Theatre. Harold Clurman directed the New York City opening, which featured a galaxy of actors who would define American Method in subsequent decades: Morris Carnovsky, Stella and Luther Adler, Sanford Meisner, and Elia Kazan.
The challenge for any director is to respect that storied legacy while finding a way to lend his production a personal signature. Daniel Fish, the star director helming this production, doesn't quite pull it off. He literally deconstructs the Gordons' living room into a heap of boards, a wall of vinyl siding, and a couple of doors—a family drama in a DIY kit. There are also movie-sized projections and on-stage camcorders that capture and enlarge intimate exchanges into Jumbotron proportions. Microphones and camera distortions allow for some clever experiments in doubling.
This is director's theater with a heavy dollop of the Wooster Group. I'm tempted to say that Fish throws everything but the kitchen sink at this production, though I think there's a kitchen sink as well. The trouble is that Odets's play is already marbled with romances, double-crosses, and the complex internal rhythms of masculine melancholia and female surrender in an age of failed breadwinners. Fish's flurry of sensuous invention makes the intricacies of Odets's character arcs difficult to follow. It's not clear whether this is a travesty of Odets's optimistic Job story or a refurbishing of it for our time. Perhaps both.
Fish's endless visual and sonic imagination does not quite overcome an uneven directorial agenda. Is the live marching band that suddenly appears at the finale a grotesque parody of endemic American hopefulness or a fanfare for the common man? Is Fish mocking the grand dreams of the little guy by giving Pearl a cheap synthesizer rather than a real piano to play? (The budget can't be the problem here: this is some of the glossiest poverty I've yet seen on stage.) Is he making proto-communist Pike intelligible or absurd by dressing him in Michigan militia wear? While Odets's period figurines border on caricature, the play becomes arid when its polemics are shot through with irony.
What is clear is that there are some superb turns by the actors. Hale Appleman powerfully grasps the thwarted vitality and shame of Ben, perhaps most evocatively in a mad tap dance that's as close as he'll ever get again to a runner's high. And it's a pleasure to see Tommy Derrah back in the sort of character roles that he's made famous, simple on the surface but with hidden depths. Adrianne Krstansky likewise brings enormous dignity to the unrewarding role of Bertha Katz. Her face is a gallery of horror, uncertainty, and empathy during the long second act when she sits motionless on the Gordon's couch, wordlessly watching.
This production proves that there is hope for the American actor despite economic hard times. There's even an afterlife for a '30s stalwart like Odets—but in his convictions and his characters, and in collaboration with his activist spirit.