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Writing for Us
A CurtainUp Review

By Elyse Sommer

Sooner murder an infant in its cradle that nurse unacted desires.
Where man is not, nature is barren.
Truth can never be told so as to be understood, and not be believed.
Enough! Or too much.
--- William Blake, from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

I write about violence as naturally as Jane Austen wrote about manners. Violence shapes and obsesses our society, and if we do not stop being violent, we have no future -- Edward Bond

Saved cast
Norbert Butz, David Barlow, Joey Kern, Justin Hagan and Justin Campbell (Photo: Ken Howard)
Another play about a baby has arrived in town. Unlike The Play About the Baby by Edward Albee (see link below), Saved by British playwright Edward Bond is not new but a newly minted production of a 1965 play. Like Albee, Bond is a controversial writer whose work has not always met with positive critical or audience response. In fact, when Saved premiered at the Royal CourtTheatre it was banned. Perhaps, in anticipation of ever more shocking films and plays, censorship vanished and Saved became a modern classic -- a visceral portrayal of life amongst the have-nots and go-nowheres of working class London serving as an I-dare-you prism through which to view our society.

Will the play's most notorious scene still send you jumping out of your seat? Despite our current state of shock overexposure and some widely circulated spoiler articles to remove the surprise factor, it did bring a very audible gasp of "Oh, no!" from one woman at last Friday night's performance. But, while I found myself clenching my teeth and the edge of my seat as I watched the unspeakable atrocity unreel at an excruciatingly slow-motion pace, it is the cumulative horror of the play that gives Saved its lasting impact.

The savagery of the much publicized atrocity is matched by several more low-key depictions of emotional deprivation and its concomitant cruelty. Most unsettling is a seemingly endless scene during which the unwed mother Pam's (Amy Ryan) baby wails pitifully as she, Mary (Randy Danson) her mother, and Harry (Terence Rigby), her ineffectual father silently ignore it. The only indication that anyone even hears the howling, is Mary's getting up to turn up the volume of the television set. Even Len (Pete Starrett), one of Pam's many casual sex partners and now a boarder in this house of heartlessness and hopelessness is too involved eating the meal Mary has served up for him. Mary's feeding him is less the nurturing Len yearns for than a display of disdain for the husband for whom she's provided no sustenance of any kind in years. It is that all-around lack of nurturing that is reflected in the baby's relentless wailing.

As David Lohrey so aptly put it in his review of a recent Los Angeles revival (linked below), Saved is a theatrical illustration of the expression "the banality of evil " -- not just via the infamous baby carriage scene, but throughout. I agree with him about its enduring power as a kitchen sink drama with plenty of resonating counterparts in our current society.

Without having seen the play before I can confidently say that Robert Woodruff's production for the Theater for New Audiences must surely rank with the best. It is incisive, chilling and true to its time and ours. The author, who came to New York during rehearsals, has every reason to be pleased with its adherence to his intent as well as with the ten actors who render his emotionally scarred characters in all their hollow acts of bravado. Americans all, they have mastered the cryptic, monotonous lingo as well as the communication that often takes the form of silent gestures and glares of mutual hatred.

Amy Ryan, Peter Starrett and Norbert Butz are terrific as Pam, Len and Fred, the three young people central to what could be described as a loveless love story. Ryan is tough yet vulnerable as a young woman who when asked during a one-night stand with Len (Starret playing the part of the sensitive, needy boy with great delicacy) "how many blokes have you had this week?" counters with "We haven't had Monday yet". Len's tenderness and effort to rouse her maternal instinct makes her more angry than responsive . Instead, she pursues Fred (Butz) who rejects her as well as their illegitimate baby. Butz is particularly strong in the way he mixes loutishness and despair.

Terence Rigby and Randy Danson are superb as Mary and Harry, the parents whose animosity is bitter and enduring even though its cause seems to no longer matter enough to warrant explanation. Their silent war would be funny if it wasn't so sad. Danson is particularly good as the aggressively hostile mother and wife. She and Starrett have one gem of a scene when, prompted by a dormant spark of sexuality, she has him stitch up her torn stocking (with her leg in it) and he, frustrated at Pam's rejection, is obviously tempted by her seductiveness.

David Barlow, Joey Kern, Justin Hagan and Justin Campbell couldn't be more ominously thuggish as the layabouts whose dialogue consists of crude jokes and who lack even a smidgen of self-awareness. Our first glimpse of them leaning idly against a gray cinderblock wall tells all -- they are together yet far eough apart to reveal their isolation, and the wailing baby beneath the swagger. That gray wall, dominates Douglas Stein's set, emphasizing the grayness of the lives inside the apartment and outside. A wide door at stage left and a drape at stage right accommodate the on and off movement of various props -- a kitchen table, couch and bed and for one park scene, a rowboat on wheels in which Pam and Len momentarily seem as if they might become a couple. Instead of dimming the lights in between scenes as is usual, the property movers do their work in full view of the audience, and as the actors position themselves for the next scene. This makes for smooth transitions despite all the shuffling noises, and gives a sense of yet another group of thugs. David Weiner's lighting and Douglas Wieselman's clanging, moody score further add to the authenticity of setting and mood.

In his introduction to the play, Edward Bond calls Saved "almost irresponsibly optimistic", citing Len's goodness in spite of his upbringing and environment, as the basis for that optimism. The two final scenes do make an attempt to leave us with some hope of redemption. Unfortunately, the scene where Harry persuades Len to stay with Pam is not the play's strongest and the real glimmer of hope is in the realignment of the couch and Len's fixing a broken chair to give that isolated family tableau a touch less of an unfixable cold shoulder atmosphere.

Saved is not in the elevator music category of theater going. It prompts laughs, but they are always tinged with nervous anticipation and darkness. It is not an easy to watch play. Neither is it one you will easily forget. The title alone raises enough questions to keep audiences discussing it over several refills of their post-theater coffee cups.

Saved in Los Angeles
The Play About the Baby

by Edward Bond
Directed by Robert Woodruff
Cast: Wendy Allegaert, David Barlow, Norbert Butz, Justin Campbell, Randy Danson, Justin Hagan, Joey Kern, Terence Rigby, Amy Ryan, Pete Starrett.
Set Design: Douglas Stein Lighting Design: David Weiner
Costume Design: Catherine Zuber
Sound Design: Leah Gelpe
Composer: Douglas Wieselman
Dialect and Vocal Coaches: Deborah Hecht, Charmian Hoare
Dramaturgy: Kathleen Dimmick Running Time: 2 hours plus one 15 minute intermission.
Theatre for a New Audience/ American Place Theater, 111 W. 46th St. (6th/7th Avs)
Performances: Tue-Sat @8PM, Sun @7PM; Sat @2PM, Sun @3PM -- $45.00.

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 2/23 performance

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