It’s a tossup as to which feels less convincing—the “shattering” epiphany that caps Sean O’Leary’s Pound, or the distinctly faux silvering on the grizzled head of the man who’s supposed to be experiencing it.
Shame, that, because O’Leary’s playing with fiery stuff here. The modernist icon Ezra Pound remains one of the 20th century’s great conundrums: polymath genius, polyglot poet, an alienated American possessed of immense gifts and a restless, rangy mind. But his passion for detail trapped him by the time World War II came snarling across Europe’s doorstep, as his tortured, too-close readings of economics and history led him into the thickets of vocal anti-Semitism. From his expat’s perch in Mussolini’s Italy, the man who discovered Joyce and Eliot spat the vilest of slanders—regularly, and on the radio—and now, 13 years after his arrest by occupying American troops, he languishes stateside in St. Elizabeths asylum, committed as unfit for trial by a government that could just as well hang him for treason.
That’s the historical picture into which O’Leary sends Dr. Mary Polley (Kathleen Coons), a dewy young shrink who’s as intrigued by the poet as by the patient. She had verse aspirations herself once, it turns out, and it was Pound her late father held out as an example of inspired originality when young Mary offered up her first derivative scribblings. And so for a while, as one deliciously wicked seatmate pointed out at intermission, what John MacDonald and the Washington Stage Guild are serving up feels an awful lot like On Golden Pound: There’s the obviously intelligent old crank whose antisocial blustering clearly hides some kind of personal pain, the nervous, needs-to-connect-with-him daughter figure insistent on his acknowledging her accomplishments, and even the tart but loving wife type (Lynn Steinmetz’s Nurse Priscomb) sparring adorably with the old poop. Six out of 10 intermission conversations, guaranteed, are going to be about how Pound and Polley will manage to find each other.
They won’t—and not just because of the “shocking” plot twist O’Leary springs after word comes that Pound’s influential friends have finally convinced the Justice Department that he’s been locked up long enough. It’s just a mild shock, really, and no shock at all if you’ve seen Death and the Maiden, though there is something intriguing about the power dynamic the writer gradually establishes between Pound and Polley. (Who understands whom more acutely? The poet, with his lifetime spent mapping the world in spare lines? Or the psychologist, with her training and her secret and her righteous rage?) Act 2 turns on the revelation of how Polley’s Italian-born parents died, and on the exhumation of the hideous specifics of Pound’s wartime screeds—and on the idea that when words have power, whether they’re words of poetry or words of propaganda, they carry the freight of culpability on their rounded backs. There’s that epiphany, and the inevitable calling into account—and a fizzle where there might have been fireworks.
Partly it’s that O’Leary’s premise seems a little improbable. Partly it’s that the balance is off—the Polley he posits as an avenging angel doesn’t seem to have much of a spine once she’s in the room with her target. And partly it’s that the answer he suggests for what led Pound to atrocity and to the asylum seems so crashingly banal: Inside the brilliant man of the world, O’Leary murmurs pityingly, quivered a scared little boy tormented by the difference that is genius. Awww. And boo-hoo.
Almost nothing about MacDonald’s unthrilling production palliates these scriptural afflictions. Conrad Feininger’s dyspeptic Pound reads like a rehearsal for a holiday engagement as Scrooge. Coons’ Polley seems anxious, birdlike; she’s transparently up to something from the beginning, but she never seems like the sort to carry off so nervy a scheme. And the design scheme seems hastily conceived, with awkward interscene blackouts bickering with uncomfortably truncated snippets from favorite Italian operas, the latter chosen for maximum obviousness. (Gee, what could they want to tell us about Pound with “Sola, perduta, abbandonata…”?)
Steinmetz’s genuinely warm caregiver is one grateful exception, Vincent Clark’s persistent, patient Archibald MacLeish the other. Each brings a welcome air of individual humanity to a room otherwise occupied largely by intellectual and moral posturings. It’s fine work in a show that could use more of the same in the principal parts.
There’s no posturing, intellectual or otherwise, in One Good Marriage, just a tight bit of writing with no pretensions to anything beyond the basics of an engaging story and a couple of well-observed characterizations. Sean Reycraft’s efficiently drawn portrait of a decidedly singular marriage opens with the blurted observation that “Everybody died!”—then spends its slender hour teasing out the where, the how, and the why.
And the how-it-feels: One Good Marriage is mostly a Six Feet Under–style yarn about an unlikely (because collective) demise, but it has a handful of perceptive things to say about the qualities of grief and about our sometimes odd rituals of grieving—about “the veil of blame and the mountain of responsibility” we sometimes wear and shoulder when a loved one dies tragically, even when we don’t carry the Cain mark of Pound-style culpability, and about the devices and designs we create to cope with them.
John Vreeke’s U.S.-premiere production at MetroStage showcases Reycraft’s easy, rhythmic writing, his eye for absurdity, and the sizable soft spot at the center of his outwardly cynical persona. Dark comedy proves in no short supply here, but the pain that springs from the shadows of that dark is never far from center stage, and Reycraft handles it with an unforced honesty. Toni Rae Brotons and Marcus Kyd could hardly be more comfortable and comfortingly familiar as the couple whose wedding reception, a year since, ended in a disaster they didn’t discover until their return from an out-of-touch honeymoon; they make the coping mechanisms Reycraft has imagined for them seem entirely natural.
One Good Marriage never manages profundity, exactly, but then it’s not shooting for it. Nor is it as complex, or nearly as acid, as the family portraits another Canadian playwright, George F. Walker, has brought to D.C. stages in recent decades. On its own unassuming terms, though, it’s a deft little piece of theater, as sweet as it is sad as it is suspenseful—and as successful, presumably, as MetroStage could want. CP