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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Personal Enemy may have flopped, but Osborne had plenty of other successes, most notably Look Back in Anger. This early play thus became his forgotten play, so much so that he didn't even save a copy of the script. Only a mention of it in John Helpeirn's Osborne biography, led to Personal Enemy's retrieval by the curator of English and drama at London's British Library to which the Chamberlain archives had been donated While this restored the lost script to the Osborne estate, it took director David Aula and the FallOut Theatre to stage the original uncut script, making the 1953 play a 2009 world premiere.
The chance to bring lost works by famous writers to life is irresistible and the FallOut production of the Osborne-Creighton new-old play generated enough interest to make it live on as part of this season's Brits Off-Broadway lineup. It's interesting to see it as a stepping stone for Osborne's angry young man Look Back in Anger and as a still emerging young playwright's attempt to fit his work into the prevailing theatrical style — the well made, entertaining play — and yet challenge existing mores.
However, anyone expecting to see a lost masterpiece given new relevance by current events is not going to find it in 59E59's Theater B. Osborne and Creighton's dramaturgy is clunky and bombastic. Polemics dominate characters who are as false and unsatisfying as most of this production's performances.
Personal Enemy does indeed challenge the postwar conformity of the 1950s. As in Arthur Miller's more enduring The Crucible, communism is the public enemy whipped into a frenzy by the McCarthy hearings. But Osborne and Creighton' also focused on another, equally feared and more "personal" enemy, homosexuality. They told their story through what they perceived to be a typical small town, God-fearing American family — a perception that' was disdainful and seemed based mostly on TV and movie stereotypes, Worse yet, the play is so misogynistic that the female characters are less victimis than witch-hunters.
As the family name, Constant, reveals itself as an all too obvious titular metaphor, we see the happy, devoted Constant house turn into an American House of Atreus. To establish the typical Americana scene and the Korean War time frame, set designer Anna Hourriere has created a realistic bare bones kitchen/living room for the Constant home, with a scrim providing a more stylized, shadowy peek at Mr. Constant's study and the entryway. A whole section of the stage is furnished with sandbags suggesting the distant war that killed the oldest son Don and will soon claim his younger brother Arnie (Peter Clapp).
The play leads off towards its Greek tragedy-like climax with a family ritual. It's Mrs. Constant's (Karen Lewis) birthday and plans are afoot for the annual celebratory picnic with her daughter Caryl (Joanne King) and Caryl's nice guy husband Sam (Mark Oosterveen). Also on scene is son Arnie (Peter Clapp), whose sensitive nature worries his sister, especially since she has discovered that he has, like his brother before him, been gifted with a copy of Leaves of Grass by Ward Perry (Steven Clarke), the town librarian. Mr. Constant (Tony Turner) appears just long enough to add his gift to those already opened and gushed over by Mrs. Constant.
While that over-extended opening scene evokes any number of popular sitcom families, don't expect any laughs. Before the gift wrappings can be cleared away, we learn that the family is trying hard to carry on even though it's been two years since Don's death in Korea. Even the one comic relief character, Mrs. Slifer (Genevieve Allenbury), the Polish neighbor with the heart as big as gold and an accent to match, ends up being embroiled in the McCarthy era's fallout.
Before Caryl's suspicions about her brothers' relationship with Ward Perry can explode and Perry makes an appearance (his red and white shoe as blatantly a characterizing signal as Mrs. Constant's never a hair out of place upsweep), there's a telegram. The good news is that Don is not dead but a prisoner of war. But this being a tragedy, bad news is not far behind. It seems he has refusesdto be repatriated. In short, he may be a communist as well as a homo.
Despite excellent credentials, the cast seems to be done in by the purple prose and sledge hammer polemics. Genevieve Allenbury is stuck with a corny accent and dialogue though she does get the play's best lines when the son she's so proud of becomes embroiled in the witch-hunts and she declares that the town can't make her an outcast since she never was "in-cast". Mark Oosterveen's Sam is the only character to breathe some real fire when he finally explodes at his wife and mother-in-law's narrow-mindedness which has made any chance for a happy ending to this story impossible. Steven Clark is to be commended for taking on three roles (besides Perry, he portrays the Constant's unhelpful clergyman, and a government investigator), even though it's only as Perry that he makes any sort of lasting impression .
Since neither playwright is around to apply more mature talent to what might have been a powerful play, one can only wish that the director had managed to restore the stuff cut by the Lord Chamberlin but applied his own blue pencil to bring this in at less than the present way too long two and a half hours.