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The privileged are being put upon again, and Wendy Wasserstein has rushed once more to their rescue with An American Daughter, a misbegotten fable in which various elitists whine about how much good they could do for us the people if it weren’t forwell, if it weren’t for us, the unruly, easily led people. To someone at Arena Stage, this thinly drawn Clinton-era misfire must have seemed enough like pungent political satire to justify a major new staging. To most everyone else, it’ll seem as tired as a Sunday-morning shoutfest and as tone-deaf as an extemporaneous Rick Santorum.
First staged (to yawns) on Broadway in 1997 and supposedly overhauled for Arena’s new production, An American Daughter chronicles the confirmation battle of one Lyssa Dent Hughes, doctor, mom, and descendant of Ulysses S. Grant, whose shoo-in appointment as surgeon general gets derailed by a series of unhappy slips: The nominee makes an offhand joke about her late mother’s baking; a bitter friend (black, gay, and conservative, so it figures) brings up a minor, technically illegal incident from the nominee’s past, just to score points in an argument over brunch; a ratings-hungry reporter peddles both tidbits as evidence of Lyssa’s contempt for ordinary folk; and an ambitious neo-feminist bimbo seizes the chance to interpret the whole business, live and play by play, for the TV audience to whom she’s marketing her latest book. Housewives, soccer moms, and church ladies descend on the nation’s capital to burn Lyssa on a pyre of cookbooks, SUV owner’s manuals, and library copies of Harry Potter.
If onlythat last, at least, would be an unexpected plot development. It would at minimum be actual satirewhich is more than you can say for anything Wasserstein and Arena Artistic Director Molly Smith have put on stage. (I’m not going to talk about the performances here; they’re good enough in the main that I don’t want to risk confusing the actors with the wretchedness of the material.) No, things proceed ponderously and with a numbing predictably from the late-Act 1 mention of that long-ago indiscretion to the I’ve-had-it-up-to-here rant that seals Lyssa’s fate in the closing scenes. In a musical, her televised meltdown would be prime eleven-o’clock-number material; in a straight play, it seems like nothing so much as an unconscious, unironic homage to Designing Women.
If the play’s events feel utterly, reductively familiar after Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood and Joycelyn Elders and Linda Chavez, the “people” Wasserstein puppeteers through them are entirely unrecognizable. Even the types these cardboard cutouts represent are hard to believe: How many queer, 30-year-old Washington Post political columnist/screenwriters do you know? Do they go around trying to flat-foot their straight colleagues by coming on to them at Georgetown social gatherings? And though somewhere out there in Washington, there may in fact be a Brooklyn-born, Jewish, female, African-American Miss Porter’s-graduate-turned-oncology- researcher who married a closet case before discovering her own infertility, audiences will be forgiven for thinking that Lyssa’s best friend is less a character than a convenient authorial construct existing only to underline the play’s feeble point.
And that point is, basically, that bright, accomplished women sometimes have trouble trying to have it all. Gee, really? Last time I checked, life was a bitch for anybody who wanted to have both a Washington career and a personal life. Oh, American Daughter’s attention is briefly devoted also to the short shrift given women’s health issues, to the tensions between Lyssa’s generation of feminists and what Wasserstein sees as the opportunistic young creatures coasting on their accomplishments, and to the evergreen topic of gender inequitythe argument being that a staffer would catch the blame for a man guilty of a trip-up like Lyssa’s. (She forgot to return a jury summons in a busy week, see, or maybe she was so impressed with her own importance that she unconsciously thought that only the little people do their civic duty, or…oh, who cares? And by the way, I seem to remember that Eleanor Holmes Norton’s husband caught the shit when her tax returns didn’t get filed.)
In any case, it’s lip service, every last line of clunky expositional dialogue; Wasserstein never gets below the surface of any topic, never sheds a scintilla of new light on how we got into the state she so thoroughly laments or where we might conceivably go from there. When it’s not indulging its breathtaking contempt for the fickle ladies who inhabit the square statesfour out of five women in the bakers’ brigade despise Lyssa when she’s riding high, and sure enough, four out of five rally round her after she tells that mean ol’ journalist offAn American Daughter is one long whine about how rough things are when you play in the big leagues. Coming from a playwright who’s been coasting for the better part of a decade, it’s a bit much to swallow. And coming from Arena Stage, which used to be interested in challenging theater, it’s enough to make you gag.
The Arena aftertaste was still acid enough to turn my stomach Sunday evening, when I opened the Theater J program to the upcoming-season pagewhich promises, yes, a Wasserstein world premiere. Happily, the company’s immediate offering proved stirring enough that I stopped grinding my teeth shortly after the lights went down.
It’s not that anything terribly profound gets said or shown in Yehuda Hyman’s The Mad Dancers, though there is quite a bit of to-do about the eternal battle of good ‘n’ evil; essentially, this is the tale of an alienated San Francisco feygele who, with some mystical assistance from a long-dead rabbi, finds a way to reconcile an identity and a faith he long believed incompatible. Or it’s a kind of religious parable in which said rabbi, facing the end of his own life, reaches through a century and more of time to steer the gayboy toward what might be a messianic destiny. Either way, despite its structural complexity and a healthy interest in the esoterics of Kabbalah, the show’s not terribly challenging.
But it is smart, stimulating theaternot least for the way the playwright’s inspirations find echoes in the style and the subtleties of Theater J’s lyrical production, staged with marvelous clarity by dance guru Liz Lerman and theater veteran Nick Olcott. The Mad Dancers is rooted, apparently, in the playwright’s own discovery of self and shared heritagethe program describes a decade of inquiry into traditions of music and dance and mysticism, in locales from Israel to Brooklyn to the Ukraineand it’s framed in a vocabulary of gesture and movement that manages to be funny and reverent and often moving, sometimes all at once.
That’s not to say it’s a dance piecethough the Post, hearing that Lerman was co-directing, apparently sent its dance critic rather than a theater writer. It’s more the sort of thing locals usually see a block or two to the west, in the Church Street stagings of the Synetic Theater: a potent fusion of movement and visuals and words, the first two underscoring and amplifying the effect of the last. An ensemble, clad in the blacks of the Hasidim, portrays the followers of that 19th-century rabbi (magnetic Naomi Jacobson), serving in the modern-day scenes as a kind of Greek chorus that tracks the movements and moods of his reluctant disciple (quirky, likable Alek Friedman). They assemble themselves into doorways and hallways on the bare circular stage, incarnate everything from office furniture to an insistent wind to something that might be described, feebly, as an atavistic memory; one of them (Nehal Joshi’s intense Nosson) chronicles events in both eras, fingers moving through empty space in stylized gestures thatsomehow, strangelysuggest the scribing of arcane letters in fire upon the air.
It’s powerful stuff, gracefully performed: Laurel Dugan, Deborah Karp, Cassie Meador, Quincy Northrup, and Nicole Williams are Jacobson’s rotating cast of unnamed followers. More active in the telling of the rabbi’s stories, in the acting-out of his tale of seven travelers, are Jesse Terrill and especially Fred Michael Beam, whose part is written specifically for a deaf actoranother indication from the author, perhaps, that words are inadequate for those who would truly wrestle with the stuff of mystery.
The design team supports cast and directors with what might be the most eloquent, expressive combination of elements in any show I’ve seen this year. Lewis Folden’s set is a tilted disc of Kabbalistic symbols encircled by panels of coppery meshwaveform surfaces that suggest both flame and the motion of bodies. Mark K. Anduss’ sound chatters and howls and moans behind the action, and under Adam Magazine’s lighting, the playing area contracts and expands until it’s small as a lonely soul or vast as an ancient city.
The Mad Dancers goes to both of those places, and to more besides; its landscapes, both geographic and spiritual, will doubtless be strange and unfamiliar to many in the audience, but Olcott and Lerman’s staging is communicative enough that things cohere even without the program’s explanatory notes. The result, at the last, is a fascinating religio-cultural traveloguea wonder-filled reminder that the incarnations and expressions of Judaism are richer and more varied than most of us ever stop to consider, plus a reassuring story of good’s resilience among a people pursued by too many evils. CP