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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
I felt I was in a body bag for two hoursAfter ranting and raging against those who create and appreciate low art -- specifically, popular plays -- the sixty-year-old Dennett (Ron Rifkin) has descended from the high art mountain that has brought him neither fame, fortune or satisfying family relationships. In fact, his chronic rage has manifested itself physically as a painful worm. Granted, Dennett set out to climb the mountain where success awaits those reaching its peak prompted by his bravado bet with Guy (Michael Winters), the successful playwright who has succeeded him in his wife's affection.
When Guy insists that the playwrighting craft Dennett has viciously belittled as pornography isn't as effortless as it looks Henry wagers he can not only become a "pornographer" but to do so within six months and get the result produced. The fact that the wager entails the not inconsiderable sum of $100, 000 immediately raises the specter that Henry is interested in the filthy lucre as well as the accreditation that accompanies success.
Surprise, surprise. Henry's venture into the "sanctimonious kitsch" genre, or "bible in pictures for the benefit of the illiterate" -- a tell-all about his family's dysfunctions -- not only wins the wager but makes him realize that it's really good and that he may have spent the better part of his life climbing the wrong mountain. Since David Hirson is an accomplished wordsmith it's equally unsurprising that Wrong Mountain is awash in other metaphors, all obvious enough to be immediately grasped by the "third-rate minds" of audiences being bitten in the hand that signed the credit card for a $65 ticket. Those metaphors and Hirson's many amusing lines (though always more monologues and debates than one liners) add considerable entertainment value to this high-minded discussion play.
The symbol-laden script has also provided director Richard Jones and his crafts team with ample opportunity to blend the play's inventive mix of real and surreal elements into a visual romp. A snow-capped double mountain range with climbers' track marks nicely sets up the title metaphor. It is at the foot of these mountains that the obscure theater company that chooses Henry's play as one of three to have a staged reading is located. A toy train amusingly transports Henry from the New England college town where he teaches to his new career adventure. To cure the metaphoric tape worm there's a fountain with a statue worthy of the Las Vegas replica of the Statue of Liberty. Drinking the vile-tasting water from the Goddess of Lithia's fountain (Hirson's answer to Henry James' "the bitch goddess-- success") gets rid of the tape worm though it leads to another disease (the erosion of Henry's skin, ergo, his artistic identity).
The stylish staging and the crisp scene to scene fade-ins and outs, punctuated with Grieg's "Peer Gynt," prevent the lengthy monologues and debates from being tedious. There are also the topnotch performances of the two men whose disappointed lives serve as mirrors the playwright holds up for us to reflect on what represents a life well spent.
Ron Rifkin conveys the misanthropic poet's rage with such feeling that watching him can rouse concern for his well being. At the Christmas dinner at which he discharges one of his longest harangues his face turns lobster red, as if he's about to have a stroke. To exacerbate his anger there's that agonizing tape worm with which Hirson has afflicted him to bring this apoplectic scene to a crash bang end.
Hirson's skill in revealing hidden sides to seemingly transparent characters, is most fully realized in the super Ham who runs the theater where Henry's play is to be semi-staged. Daniel Davis is all the phony, self-dramatizing actors you can think of as Maurice, the artistic director with the orange died hair and phony British accent who insists on playing Romeo at an age that strike Henry as "pathological." The scene when he leads the actors in relaxation exercises and his MC routine as he introduces the three plays to an invited audience are among the highlights of the evening's two hours.
Rifkin makes us feel his pain but he can't make us really care about him even when there's a glimmer of awareness. When one of the actors (Maurice's daughter a well-played small part by Anne Dudek) makes fun of his attempt at what is clearly one of many seductions of "young literary Lolitas" there's little sympathy for the man who's as self-deluded about his personal life as his artistic talent. The powerful confrontation with the son (Bruce Norris) who's modeled his opinions and his appearance (Rifkin and Norris are dressed almost alike) fizzles out weakly. Rifkin is left an impoverished human being who's scaled two mountains but still hasn't gotten a foothold on the mountain where success is not judged by your talent as a writer but your talent for life.
If we identify with anyone it's with Maurice, who for all his pretensions, knows what's really important. He has a caring relationship with his daughter, whereas Henry has cruelly diminished his children and can't even show any feeling for his grandchild.
The rest of the generously sized cast gives decent performances, especially Daniel Jenkins as an ambitious young playwright who counters Rifkin's arguments with sincerity and good sense, Tom Riis Farrell as Henry's stage-struck doctor and one of the actors; also Michael Winters as the playwright who turns out to be the only member of the fateful Christmas dinner party who doesn't mind having to ante up the $100, 000 Henry has won but is deeply wounded by the realization that this is the play he should have written. The other characters, especially the family members, come across as too underdeveloped.
In the final analysis, Mr. Hirson has displayed his considerable skills and imagination but also climbed the wrong mountain. Instead, of building on the good will of his first play, La Bête, to create the challenging theater experience his antihero declares to be nonexistent, he has revisited the same theme and dressed it up as a not particularly substantial entertainment.
One can only hope that Hirson does not allow the potentially negative fallout from Wrong Mountain's weaknesses to send him into another paralysis (the effect he has told interviewers kept him from writing a second play in ten years). I think he's got what it takes, but he needs to look outside the narrow world of the theater (which, especially today, is hardly what makes the world turn and which has been discussed ad infinitum by theater journalists). His characters can live within a narrow world (i.e. Margaret Edson's Dr. Bearing in Wit ), but their epiphanies need to resonate more universally.