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Going Places in the Berkshires

By Elyse Sommer -- June 18, 1996

Editor's Note: This review is part of a series done as a column prior to the launch of CurtainUp -- and has been included in our A-Z Master Index for archival purposes
Two of last season's most noteworthy theatrical events were the return to Broadway of two highly acclaimed tragi-comedies, Delicate Balance by Edward Albee and Buried Child by Sam Shepard. Both were about dysfunctional families. So is The End of the Day by Jon Robin Baitz, which opened the season at the Williamstown Theatre Festival's Other Stage. The play is a revival of a 1991 run at Paywright's Horizon and applies its theme of dysfunction to the whole world. It pictures a world in which everything which is broken seems beyond fixing. Both the personal life and career of the protagonist, Graydon Massey, are bankrupt. Raised in a rich family in London where, according to his now dead father "everything's gone dark." Massey's weakness has landed him in a last-ditch job at a California mental hospital where "nothing works." A drug-addicted patient in "this little franchise of hell" typifies the pervasive hopelessness and foreshadows Massey's own doomed future.

Like Albee and Shepard, Baitz has tried to leaven this heavy loaf with humor. Thanks to thebtalented writer/actress Claudia Shear, he succeeds twice. His other humorous scenes are less successful, too farcial and too familiar. Shear, in spite of her standup comedienne persona, also manages to portray the wife and would-be-wife of the unloving and unlovable Massey as one of the few flesh-and-blood characters we meet. David Marshall Grant, who gave a stellar performance as a closeted homosexual in Angels in America fails to make anyone care about the Englishman-turned-Ugly American. His English baggage of stereotypical superiority is so firmly strapped in place that it's hard to believe he ever wanted to escape his greedy, bigoted family. He is loved, though God knows why, by a fragile wife whose love "he stole" to ease into American citizenship and money, and then "stored away with his argyle socks."" (An interesting accusation since it comes from the friend who is trying to seduce him to take his last step to hell by becoming a drug dealer!) Maybe having to stay on top of his stiff upper lip English accent gets in the way of his connecting emotionally with the part he's playing, or the audience. The pitiful drug addict who serves as Massey's alter ego does, like Shear, have his moments of genuineness. However he too becomes an Ugly American type when he switchesfrom pathetic and psychotic, to corrupt and greedy, sue-the-bastards son of a lawyer.

The device that links together the scenes--an ensemble of Neurotics with all the visual and vocal accouterments of chaotic inner cities like Los Angeles plus easily recognizable patriotic music (yes, of course, there's Kate Smith singing "God Bless America")--adds a nice if not profound touch/ The revolving set, works well. However, in the end, the play does not.

All this said, I'm glad I saw The End of the Day. It gave me a chance to see the work of director Scott Ellis who's currently on a much deserved roll. It also gave me a chance to see the only Baitz play I never saw in New York. Like quite a few theater lovers, I've been a Baitz watcher and fan ever since I saw his first play, The Film Society, and experienced the excitement that attends the discovery of a new talent. The venue was the off-Broadway Second Stage, a modest theater similar to the Williamstown Other Stage. The audience, generously sprinkled with actors, bristled with enthusiasm. When I saw his next play, Substance of Fire, during its Lincoln Center run my initial feeling that this was a new playwright to watch was confirmed. Substance was an entertaining and thought-provoking drama, with characters that engaged the actors and the audience. Next came Three Hotels. It was a fine vehicle for Substance star Ron Rifkin, but somewhat too polemic to be completely successful as a play with its theme growing organically from a story. This season's A Fair Country at Lincoln Center's Newhouse Theater also tended to use the characters as a coat rack on which the author could hang his theme rather than the other way around. Still, like everything I've seen by Baitz, it held my interest and demonstrated a virtuoso's gift for words.

I hear Baitz is writing a new play and as long as he keeps writing I'll continue to check out his work. I hear this latest is about walkers which is a term for male escorts--not a cutting edge career like designing web pages for the Internet perhaps, but intriguing and, hopefully, not quite as angry as the Other Stage production. As for Scott Ellis, the director--Berkshire theater goers will have a chance to see more of his work.

© Copyright June 28, 1996 Elyse Sommer Information from this site may not be reproduced in print or online without specific permission from

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