Once upon a time, before the movie action-operatics of Cliffhanger and Vertical Limit, there was a splendid, intimate play by Patrick Meyers called K2, the saga of best friends climbing the second-highest mountain in the world. In 1982, just after K2 premiered in New Hampshire, Arena Stage mounted Meyers’ work in Washington on its way to successful stagings in New York and then worldwide.
Now, as part of Arena’s 50th-anniversary glance back at its own rise to regional prominence, it ascends K2 again in a production featuring new actors in the two sole roles but with the same key
technical experts it used two decades ago. The result, helmed by director Wendy C. Goldberg, is a heartbreakingly vivid, if slightly dated, journey into the airy realms of friendship, rivalry, and regret.
At 27,000 feet, 1,250 feet from the summit, Harold (Rick Holmes) and Taylor (Craig Wallace) are lucky to be aliveand will have to remain lucky to stay alive. “Me and you, Harold. No tent. No bags. One night. History, Harold,” says the plucky Taylor. But they have one 120-foot rope between them, and Harold’s left leg is useless, and Taylor’s shoulder is injured from a rappelling accident the day before. So “history” could have more than one meaning.
“Equipment inventory. Situation assessment,” is the mantra of can-do Taylor, who seems the alpha male to Harold’s beta. As the two seek to retrieve a second rope from the top of an ice wall above their narrow ledge, they also take stock of their friendship, their careers, Harold’s family, and Taylor’s torrid love life. They assess each other’s fearin Harold’s case, fear of risking his heart to a world beyond the domestic; in Taylor’s, fear of looking beyond the serial womanizer’s thrill of repetitious erotic combat. A self-aware misogynist, Taylor calls himself the “thinking man’s Norman Mailer.”
Harold is a physicist, wandering between the vistas of complex theoretical understanding when atomic concepts play out and clouds of confusion when the concepts clash with each other. Taylor, a prosecutor, sees himself as a soldier shielding the deluded yuppie hordes from the criminal scum they’ve created through the welfare state.
We’re still struck all these years after its inception at the great cleverness of Meyers’ premise. Harold and Taylor are Didi and Gogo at 40 degrees below zero, the existential component created not just by the gargantuan slab of limestone and ice they’re perched upon, but by their slipping faith in the staunch Americanisms of planning, equipment, teamwork, courage, and strength. Best of all, this heavy package is wrapped in suspenseful conundrums that are anything but abstract or symbolic. The play is a classic consideration of the questionable significance of existencewith a life-and-death fulcrum that gives the dialogue the sharpness of a crampon’s cleats. Significant or not, these two organisms seem to enjoy being alive, even if they’re confounded by and reckless with the gift.
They are yin and yang in terms of personality, profession, and politics, but what makes the friends’ sparring more than symmetrically pleasing is Harold’s quirkiness. The odd specificity of his character is the screw that holds the slender narrative rope to the steep incline of Meyers’ dramatic conceit. A romantic in the deepest sense, who borespractically revoltsTaylor with his account of falling in love with his wife and discovering life’s holistic fabric at the birth of his son, Harold is also a pervert and a hoot, spinning yarns worthy of the sickest R. Crumb cartoons. As Taylor climbs the ice wall, Harold, drunk on thin air and pain and exhaustion, serenades his companion with the wholesome tale of a glass-eyed Cyclops who’s fond of oral sex and weak on personal hygiene.
Holmes’ performance is superb, as Harold slips into quasihallucinatory, almost ecstatic rants about the world’s inhuman obsession with “gizmos.” With the neutron bombwhich his San Francisco laboratory developed, Harold points out”we could drop you in your tracks without so much as harming the flesh tones on your Sony Trinitron.” Suddenly aware, in the awesome clarity and lousy odds of high altitude, that he’s always been stuck on being “the bright boy,” Harold proclaims, “I am a godoh God, help meI am a god. There is method.” This semicoherent declaration suggests that he’s a truly bright boy after all, bright enough to see humanity’s extraordinary capacityand its pitiful vulnerability, too. Bright enough to see the grim truth of his and Taylor’s situationa truth “bigger than a bread box,” as he puts it, teasingly, to his less nimble-minded friend. Bright enough to see the beauty of his unwanted epiphanythat life is about “holding on” and then not. This season, you’ll hear no soliloquy sadder, stranger, and more stirring than Harold’s lecture on glacier foxes.
Wallace’s role is more physically demanding, and the production’s oohs and ahs stem from his acrobatics at the coaching of climbing consultant Jeffrey Hunt Bartlett. But dramatically, his part is far less interesting than Holmes’, and his performance is less compelling. Wallace’s fury seems distanced, his reading a tad rote. He plays the role with great vigor and earnestness, but you may find yourself longing for more of the suave courtroom smugness and calculation of, say, Michael Biehn, who played Taylor in the 1991 film version of the play. That may, in part, be director Goldberg’s doing; she says in a program-note Q&A, “I urged the guys to take the pauses and hit the punctuation…almost like with classical texts.” A wrong turn, perhaps, for a play liberally spiced with colloquialism and profanity. This isn’t Mamet. Why not let it flow?
Arena justly touts, as the production’s third star, the awesome set by Ming Cho Lee. A 50-foot monolith of urethane foam sheathed with tissue paper, it memorably confronts viewers with the show’s contextual tension as soon as they walk into the Kreeger. Allen Lee Hughes’ lighting design is also superb, gently but precisely ushering us through a short, alpine dawn-to-dusk while simultaneously drawing us into Harold’s stilled body and unquiet heart. Sound designer Timothy M. Thompson blasts us with an introductory ice storm of Indo-flavored percussion, then unobtrusively mines the actors’ words for reverb appropriate to the action and the lines’ import.
Time has not been entirely kind to K2, which is something of a victim of its own success. Its characters have become a little clichéd, not only because of the film version of the play itself and its shallow action-cinema knockoffs, but also from philoso-macho literary treatments of climbing such as James Salter’s Solo Faces.
There’s also, of course, the fundamental absurdity of two characters who are frostbitten, puking, grasping for their oxygen masks, and scarfing down meat bars also engaging in articulate, if somewhat stream-of-conscious, verbal play. Ad executives on the chairlifts at Vail aren’t this chatty. Allusions to relativity and quarks must have seemed more exotic 19 years ago in a mainstream play than they do now, when Copenhagen, Proof, Fermat’s Last Tango, and other brainy Broadway fare treat complex physics and math concepts with the diligence of advanced pre-med courses. “Quark, quark, quark,” Taylor repeats in a Beckett-like Dada moment that relies on the term’s alien sheen. But these days, quarks seem almost passéwe want tau neutrinos, baby, or at the very least, charm quarks and strange quarks. References to hippydom, the rock group Blind Faith, and other chronologically pinpointable phenomena also contribute to an eminently forgivable but nonetheless distracting Big Chill-ish historical qualitySir Edmund Hillary meets Lawrence Kasdan.
Yet K2 is worth reviving. The program notes quote some predictable pablum from mountaineer Charles Houston about climbing mountains “to be briefly free of the small concerns of our common lives.” But K2 is more original, and sweeter, than that. “I want to thank life for not being a rock,” Harold says. In other words, it’s the contrast with the mountain as much as the conquest of it that matters to himthe quotidian gorgeousness of the life he left behind in San Francisco. He doesn’t want to be free of his small concerns; he wants to see them in the wonderful and terrifying clarity of thin, unpolluted air.
Equipment inventory. Situation assessment. Above or below the timberline, what else can a lowly human being do? How pitiful such a state, Meyers leaves us thinking. How noble. How difficult. CP