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CurtainUp DC Report: August 1997
"Connecting in an Isolating Age"

by Les Gutman

August DC Report Topics
Note: Monthly reports arrive mid-month, but are updated in between
    Scenes From The New World, by Eric Bogosian (reviewed)
    Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Purloined Patience, by Nick Olcott
    Interview with Kaia Calhoun regarding The Tempest
       and her Gielgud fellowship with director Garland Wright
    Never the Sinner, by John Logan (reviewed) -UPDATED 8/27
Web pages mentioned in this report
Links to topics covered in prior DC Reports and to DC Theater Guides

The lyric above, which is Jonathan Larson's, is a reminder that the Rent road show hits Washington August 20 for a lengthy visit. Other notions of "making connections" also arrive in Washington theaters this month, and provide a convenient theme for this month's report.

Connecting on the Internet
As an Internet-based publication, CurtainUp loves examples of how wonderful the cyber world can be.  One such story is that of Amalgamated Productions -- despite its fancy name a new (and poor) DC theater company -- and how the Internet brought it together with playwright, actor and prominent netizen Eric Bogosian. This month, Amalgamated is mounting its first production: Bogosian's play, Scenes From The New World.  Amalgamated's principals (actors-turned-producer/directors Steven Carpenter and Andrew Price) "connected " with the play on the Bogosian web site, where excerpts from it are displayed with the notation, "a free play for people looking for something to perform". With that kind of sales pitch, how could they have passed it up? Our review follows.
It's a very Eighties piece, but like a bad penny, the Eighties refuse to go away.
--Eric Bogosian, from the author's statement for this production

Scenes From The New World actually feels more like a 90's update of a late 70's piece, but it surely features denizens of the "Me Generation" 80's. It consists of three scenes woven together by a narrator/tour guide.  The first scene survives from a workshop Eric Bogosian did in 1981; its revision, and the two newer scenes, were finished by Bogosian earlier this year. This production describes it as "three short plays," which belies its interconnected nature.

The narrator (Peter J. Mendez) is a cross between Bogosian himself (undoubtedly not an accident) and Rod Serling (perhaps an accident, but not a mistake). While the scenes are putatively about "power" (according to the producers), they are more fundamentally about the bad pennies referred to above. The culture which characterizes life in the New World is ineluctable; it can be redesigned, but it can't be avoided. To call it the New World (or, for that matter, the Twilight Zone) is nothing more than a self-satisfying rationalization, a way of disassociating.

The first scene is a gritty picture of urban street life, with the requisite supply of homeless people, drugs, hookers and knife-wielding boys -- even a Vietnam veteran in a wheel chair. It's not a very appetizing place, and pushing people away seems to be everyone's hobby. At its conclusion, the narrator even invites the audience to go home if they want.

The second scene takes place at lunch in a trendy restaurant, where the power hungry venerate, loathe and mimic the powerful. The cast of characters is different, and there is a lot more humor (Bogosian claims to have come to understand humor later in life), but things are still pretty unpleasant. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that these are the same people, except they now prefer their drugs very dry and with an olive. We also see new definitions of pushing people away.

The final scene takes place in "the forge of the New World," a movie producer's office, where celebrity is the drug of choice and the now-familiar people appear in a different iteration of Bogosian decadence, and with a different manner of pushing away the undesirable. Television and the movies are central to New World culture, especially in confounding the line between the real and staged, so this scene presumably should bring some closure. Bogosian seems less focused here than he needs to be. (Could it be it strikes too close to home?) We are left with a tableau rather than a conclusion.

Since Bogosian is best known -- or, at least was before the several movie credits now on his resume -- as a monologist, Scenes could be described as a monologist's reverie. The narrator floats in and out of each scene, both as character and as self. Dialogue is at its strongest when it speaks the voice of Bogosian's own (adopted) persona (that is to say, the white American heterosexual male, in the worst sense of that expression). Some of the other characters ring less true and, as is his style, rely (too?) heavily on stereotypes.

Each scene centers on a single Bogosian-esque character. In the first scene, this character is the narrator. Although he starts like a bat out of hell, Mendez settles into a cadence that works well, trying to ingratiate himself with the audience in spite of himself, in a role that swerves from jerk to victim and back again. As the power-lunching advertising executive, Tim Carlin seems to have a handle on every detestable value known to man, and Jeff Baker performs well as the movie producer. The remainder of the cast is generally quite good also. The two standouts are young Jason Truitt (as a drug dealing boy and as Tommy, the teen-star sorta-wannabe) and Brian McMonagle (especially as two gay characters -- Robert and Brian).

Although certainly not as groundbreaking a form today as it might have been twenty years ago, Scenes is generally successful in putting interesting meat on the bones of Bogosian's viewpoint. And it does so interactively -- tempting the audience to discard (or at least externalize) the play's message, just as the characters reject everything they don't want to see or hear. But that, naturally, is Bogosian's trap.

In this production, the bait is abetted by the setting. Staged in a raw warehouse/loft, the "scene" on 7th Street in front of the theater (complete with homeless people asking if you can spare a quarter) is virtually indistinguishable from the first scene on-stage. Next door to the theatre, a hyper-trendy restaurant that caters to the power-hungry set (Ruppert's - the subject of a beautiful photo spread in a recent issue of Metropolitan Home) is open for business. The second scene menu featuring food like "hickory and balsam smoked goose stuffed with Icelandic oysters and wild truffles" would be right at home at Ruppert's. A few blocks down, a new generation of entertainment complexes are under construction.

The coincidence of script and site selection have produced something at least a little poetic. The other production choices have been modestly but intelligently made. Resisting the temptation to over-use the vast available space, and nicely framing the space with two perpendicular walls -- one at each end of the main performing area -- each scene is well-staged and appropriately furnished. (Set design is not credited in the playbill, so by default credit will go to director Steven Carpenter and assistant director Andrew Price.) Lighting (Peter N. Joyce) and costumes (Kate Turner-Walker) are also simple and straightforward, but effective, and sound design (Lane Buschel) is quite good.
by Eric Bogosian 
with Claudia Alick, Jeff Baker, Jon Bernthal, Hillary Isquith, Peter J. Mendez, Brian McMonagle, 
Laurena Mullins, Jeff Pennington and Jason Truitt 
Directed by Steven Carpenter 
Studio 1019, 1019 7th Street NW in DC (202) 342-7827 
August 7-August 24, 1997
Contemporaries Finally Connecting on Stage
Although they inhabited the same age, it seems Sherlock Holmes never had occasion (until now) to make the acquaintance of Gilbert and Sullivan. A new play by Nick Olcott handles the introductions. Presented by the Interact Theatre Company, Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Purloined Patience connects the famous sleuth with the equally famous pair, in their moment of need.

The show, with music cribbed from a variety of familiar G&S songs (e.g., "I am the Very Model of a Crack Victorian Supersleuth"), is based at least partly in fact: the score for Gilbert & Sullivan's Patience was actually pilfered and performed in America before it opened in London. Audiences are enjoying this silly Victorian fun. Performances have been extended until September 7 at the Elizabethan Theater at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol Street, SE, in DC. Telephone (703) 760-9863.

Connecting Directors Connecting and Reconnecting
The Shakespeare Theatre's upcoming production of The Tempest connects two directors whose work CurtainUp favorably reviewed in New York this past season. (Links to both reviews can be found at the end of this Report.) Kaia Calhoun directed Kia Corthron's play about raising children in the inner city, Seeking the Genesis, at the Manhattan Theatre Club; Garland Wright directed Elizabeth Egloff's adaptation of Dostoevsky's The Devils at the New York Theatre Workshop. Now in DC, Wright will be directing The Tempest, and Calhoun will be working with him as the first recipient of the Sir John Gielgud Directing Fellowship.

CurtainUp visited Ms. Calhoun before rehearsals recently, to learn more about the fellowship and her thoughts on how to make classical and contemporary theater connect with its audience. We also report  her impressions of the experience of working with Garland Wright (reconnecting with The Tempest for his fourth time as a director) as well as what can be expected in this production of The Tempest. See the interview.

The Tempest will be on stage at The Shakespeare Theatre, 450 7th Street NW, in DC, from September 2 through October 26. Telephone (202) 393-2700. The theater's web site is linked at the end of this Report.
Review: Never the Sinner
Early on in his representation of Leopold and Loeb, Clarence Darrow asks his teenage clients a question lawyers never ask:


To which Nathan Leopold responds:

    "I don't think you'd understand."

In Never the Sinner, John Logan's enormously thought-provoking play about the troubling Leopold and Loeb murder case, the pursuit of understanding is the theatrical equivalent of quicksand.

The arrival on the East Coast of this winner of Chicago's Jefferson Award, which has been presented around the world and even filmed for British television, is both overdue and welcome. It uses courtroom drama, psychological profiles and press reporting to tell its story, but it is more than the sum of its parts. Putting time and place on a seemingly random pogo stick, it skillfully blends these elements into an exceptionally well-paced, compelling and sharply directed story. Using linear reasoning to fathom the complexities of this case would be far less enlightening.
For anyone not already familiar with this "crime of the century" (our own fin de siècle perch now makes this expression almost comical but it has been the subject of at least three films and over fifty books), Nathan Leopold (Jason Patrick Bowcutt) and William Loeb (Michael Solomon) were brilliant, rich Chicago teenagers in the roaring twenties who savagely murdered a fourteen year old boy -- for no good reason. When the body was found and they were linked to the crime, they confessed. Their families hired Clarence Darrow (the greatest lawyer of the century, from any perch) to save their necks. Darrow (James J. Lawless) tried -- but indeed failed -- to explain his clients' motivations. He succeeded however -- he saved the boys' lives -- by a different approach.

Logan creatively illuminates the proffered explanations; to be specific: All are roads that never reach a destination. No one knows why this murder occurred. Neither Logan nor director Ethan McSweeny lead us to an answer. This is not a play for those searching for assuagement.

Logan follows Darrow's agenda. He causes us to consider what we dare not contemplate: that the building blocks that made this murder possible are present (if hopefully suppressed) in each of us. We must accept these teenage "monsters" as human beings. Then, he asks us whether it is not equally monstrous that society abandons mercy and justifies the act of capital punishment. It is a chilling and unpleasant exercise: to return to the items delineated above and analyze the motivations for capital punishment in that context.

An aside: whether this exercise "chills" may depend in large part on one's preconceived notions about capital punishment. This is a debate that has progressed not at all in the intervening 73 years. I didn't require much persuasion. Neither did the judge. It is said he was crying at the end of Darrow's summation.

At the heart of Never the Sinner are the portraits of these two complicated boys. Subtly defined and shifting constantly, they are not caricatures but confounding and contradictory adolescents. Logan shows the facets of their personalities by juxtaposing scenes in court with scenes from the previous year, scenes with psychiatrists and scenes with each other. McSweeny's meticulous staging underscores this beautifully, even shifting perspective on Signature Theatre's thrust stage.

A sense of structure and direction is maintained by a chorus of three reporters. All of this interwoven with the trial - a battle between Darrow and State's Attorney Crowe (Glen Pannell), and the witnesses they present and cross-examine.

The two young actors master unimaginably convoluted portrayals, and do so with great sophistication. There is no clarity in these roles, and there is no stability in their characters. There is a great temptation for an actor to find these characters. Their great success is that they do not: we are not permitted to be repulsed by them, nor can we feel sorry for them. Either would devalue the inquiry, and make the answers easy.

Jason Patrick Bowcutt's Leopold is a social failure, fascinated by ornithology and obsessed with Loeb. He is frightening in the way mad scientists are: clinical and hyper-analytical -- blind to ordinary concerns. Everything to him is science. Loeb, by contrast, appears self-assured, handsome and outgoing. Crime is simply his way of having fun, and his pleasure is mindless. Everything to him is adventure. If they are monsters, they are of different breeds.

Underneath, another dimension appears. Leopold, despite his devotion to Loeb, hears his own drumbeat. We see hints of an assertiveness yet-to-manifest. Solomon's Loeb, superficially full of bravado, gives away subtle secrets. It is he, not Leopold, who is nervously tapping his fingers and tapping his feet during their crime. Later, it is he, not the supposedly obsessed Leopold, who feels abandoned and needy.

In an equally difficult role, James J. Lawless has the unenviable task of replicating the greatest orator of the twentieth century. Homespun, unintimidating and with a studied dishevelment, Lawless plays Darrow simultaneously low-key and full of fire. If he does not bring the audience to tears, at least we see a glimpse of Darrow's legendary persuasiveness. As his frustrated opponent, Pannell's Crowe is lucid and dutifully persuasive as well.

Lou Stancari's set is simple and unusual. A backdrop which looks something like an enormous floor-to-ceiling étagère serves as both a convenient storage unit for props and other icons and as a piece of scenery as well. The other design elements are well-executed, especially the exceptional sound design and music by David Maddox.

Never the Sinner deserves to be seen by a far larger audience than its current limited run can possibly accomodate. In fact, it deserves the kind of attention visited on two off-Broadway productions of the past season, How I Learned to Drive and Gross Indecency (see links to CurtainUp reviews at the bottom of this page), with both of which it shares elements of kinship.
By John Logan 
starring Jason Patrick Bowcutt, Michael Solomon and James J. Lawless 
Directed by Ethan McSweeny 
Signature Theatre, 3806 S. Four Mile Run Drive, Arlington VA (703) 218-6500 
August 19 - September 28 
Transfers to Rep Stage, 10901 Little Patuxent Pkwy., Columbia MD  (410) 772-4900 
October 10 - October 26
Links to Web Pages Mentioned in this Report
Bogosian website: 
CurtainUp's review of Seeking the Genesis
CurtainUp's review of The Devils
Shakespeare Theatre website:
CurtainUp's review of How I Learned to Drive
CurtainUp's review of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde

©August 1997, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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