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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
The still pertinent issues pertaining to the Manhattan Project that created the Atomic Bomb should but doesn't make for high drama. What we have is a talkfest by four people drinking Coca-Cola and green tea as they nervously await the crucial testing of the bomb that two of them worked on. There's no tension and, worse, little of the lyricism and characterizations that one expects from this playwright.
The heavy layer of retro sensibility and the parallels with the movie, The Big Chill, enhanced rather than diminished the enjoyment and freshness of The Fifth of July. Not so in Rain Dance.
The 40s music you hear as you take your seat includes big band crooner Bob Eberly presciently singing "Fools Rush In. " The small bar or cantina at the New Mexico site of the Project is authentically if sparsely furnished. But once the lights go down authentic details prove to be a prelude to a case of four cardboard characters in search of real human beings. The story, such as it is, moves forward by having them take turns in a debate on nuclear energy.
Mr. Wilson''s dual focus on the issues affecting those involved in the historic project's final countdown as well as its effect on the tranquil beauty and Native American customs of the desert where it all happened contains the seeds of a solid play. With Wilson's story telling skills fully utilized it might be worth revisiting a topic already dramatized in Heinar Kipphardt's 1969 courtroom drama, In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer.
Unfortunately, the human elements that could involve us in the lives of the three men and one women and their relationships with each other are insufficiently developed. Each is stuck within the mold of a representative viewpoint: Young American idealist-scientist. . . pragmatic physicist. . . physicists much younger and more emotionally fragile German refugee wife. . . Native American who straddles his past and his present connection as a military policeman.
Guy Sanville, who also directed the only other production of this play (for The Purple Rose Theatre Company which commissioned it and employs him as artistic director), brings little to the Signature's stage in the way of inventive blocking or helping the actors make the lengthy discussions more absorbing. Most egregiously, he fails to steer James Van Der Beek, the actor whose talk dominates the play, to speak so that his words project. As Hank, the young physicist from the Bronx whose love affair with the New Mexico desert (beautifully evoked by James Vermeulen's lighting) has exacerbated his anxiety about what he's involved with, Van Der Beek captures some of the explosive energy (echoed by little bursts of real explosives we hear going off in the desert) generated by the tense countdown to the big test , but much of his non-stop talk is lost in his delivery.
As for the character of Tony, Randolph Mantooth conveys the image of an Indian of few words. Happily Wilson softens the stereotype by substituting at times amusing dialogue for monosyllables. Tony's account of leaving the Reservation as part of an Indian Dance Group (which explains the play's title) is interesting enough to make one wish for a whole play about this character's youthful exploits though its connection to this play is, like so much else, ambiguous.
Those who wish that one of Wilson's most popular "Talley " plays had made it into this season, might consider a summer visit to the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge which has it on its agenda in August.
LINKS TO OTHER LANFORD WILSON PLAYS
All the links below, except Hot L Baltimore, were part of the Signature's Wilson season. You might also want to check out our growing list of links plays we've reviewed that are related to science.
Book of Days
Fifth Of July
Hot L Baltimore
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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