The name N. Richard Nash may not immediately ring a bell with every reader. That's because even his best-known work, the forty-six year old The Rainmaker, is more identified with its key character, Billy Starbuck than the play's author. Revivals and stagings throughout the world, and adaptions for the screen and musical stage (101 In the Shade, for which Nash wrote the book) have made The Rainmaker if not a major classic, a most successful minor classic.
With a beautifully staged Rainmaker at this summer's Williamstown Theatre Festival (see link) still fresh in my mind, the announcement of an Off-Broadway world premiere of a new Nash play was too intriguing to pass up. Could this be another minor classic quietly slipping into town under the auspices of The Actors/Playwrights Lab? Given the criteria that earned The Rainmaker its "classic" tag, the answer is "hardly."
The Loss of D-Natural, like The Rainmaker is about a family in the grip of a double catastrophe -- one natural and the other spiritual. The Rainmaker is at heart a romantic fairy tale in which the characters eventually overcome both droughts overhanging their lives. The Loss of D-Natural, is a nightmare version of Nash's youthful dream -- a nightmare in which an even more cataclysmic natural disaster has turned into unending catastrophe, miscommunication has become total alienation and, in fact, dehumanization. The "home" in which this nightmare vision of life after apocalypse unfolds is a dark room evoking visions of houses destroyed by war time bombings. There's a kitchen somewhere in the back of the house, as there's a site somewhere away from it where some unidentified powers that be may or may not be in charge.
Not surprisingly, John ( George Cavey) and Emily (Jennifer Sternberg ), the couple who occupy this grim habitat, speak in cryptic snatches of dialogue about "a closet full of words we have no use for" and about sons whose memory has faded. Other truths have been eluded as well because "the truth is an earthquake".
The arrival of Emily's brother Charles (Jim Doerr) and Jessica, (Eva Lowe) the daughter from whom they are mysteriously estranged, does not lift either the aura of gloom and doom or the audience's sense of bewilderment. Charles is maniacally cheerful, cloaked in a cape of jungle warfare fatigues and wearing his false teeth as an amulet ("they tell me how hungry I am"). Jessica is blonde and attractive and verbal but her husband Paul (Robert Boardman) is almost blind and mute (possibly tougher part to play than one with many lines to memorize). Her son Frank (Rusty Ross) and armless daughter Carla (Michelle Enfield) who "grew the way terror grows" look like pre-teens but according to Emily should be just 3 months old. Both are also mute.
Don't expect to make complete sense out of anything that happens. This is after all a play about a world that has stopped making sense. If you give yourself over to the proceedings without demanding too many answers, however, you will find yourself responding to the mood created by the script, the actors, (all of whom are quite good, including Jennifer Sternberg who stepped in as a last-minute replacement for Victoria Boothby), and the director. It is a mood lightened ever so briefly at the beginning of Act 2, when the seven family members share a dinner made from a dead cock scavenged by Charles and a single fig Emily has scavenged from her empty cupboards. It is a mood that not only turns dark again, but veers towards ever greater horror.
In the end The Loss of D-Natural leaves you with more questions than answers. Even the lost "D-Natural" remains something of a mystery -- a painful sound reminding us of that even our natural instincts for decency are not immune to the dark forces of nature gone amuck.
With the recent Rainmaker production still fresh in my mind, D-Natural also left me wondering whether creative vision gets darker as one gets older or whether it takes the security of an established hit to expose that vision to the public? Nash apparently still felt compelled to hide his darker side when Fire, a precursor to D-Natural was produced in Boston. This is a tiny space, not hard to fill with people to look into the abyss without recoiling. I can't say go see this, you'll enjoy it. It's not enjoyable. It's not easy to grasp. To be honest, if I hadn't seen The Rainmaker so recently, I probably wouldn't have connected the dots between that comedy-drama and this absurdist nightmare side of that bright coin. As it is I'm not sure I really got it. I am sure I won't soon forget it.
| LOSS OF D-NATURAL
By N. Richard Nash
Directed by Matt Conley
With: George Cavey, Jennifer Sternberg, Jim Doerr, Robert Boardman, Michelle Enfield, Rusty Ross
Set design: Don Jensen
Lighting Design: Jason Kankel
Sound design: Carol Rosset
Produced by The Actors/Playwrights Lab
Mint Theare, 311 /w, 43rd St (212/279-42) Performances from 9/05/98; opening 9/08/98
Reviewed 9/11/98 by Elyse Sommer