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Chalk it up to Di-wariness, or celeb-weariness, but rest assured you will wonder during the double-exclamation pointed, two-character chronicle Look! We Have Come Through! why a theater audience should care about the marital and extramarital carryings on of Frieda and D.H. Lawrence. Olney Theatre’s production offers the obvious if not terribly dramatic answer that their relationship is reflected in some of the most famous literature of the 20th century. Somehow, that’s not enough.
The script, teased into narrative form from the couple’s letters and from David Herbert Lawrence’s poetry and fiction, does its best to tie every kiss and snarl to a literary passage. Poems are fervently intoned, titles and dates flashed on a scrim behind the actors, excerpts from Women in Love and other novels integrated into domestic scenes, and a skit from Lawrence’s child-custody play, The Fight for Barbara, enacted in the florid style of melodrama. By intermission, the audience knows that Frieda took a shine to the budding author while she was still married to one of his college professors, that they ran off to Germany together, and that their primary modes of contact from then on were sex and squabbling.
Whether this adds anything to a reading of Sons and Lovers seems debatable. What isn’t is that sex (when it’s only talked about) and squabbling (when it’s essentially endless) become numbing. Only when adaptors Jim Petosa and Carole Graham Lehan stop concentrating on Lawrence’s friction with his wife and start examining his battles with publishers and with his own mortality does the evening come to any sort of dramatic life.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen until the second act, by which time more than a few opening-night patrons had fled. They missed a couple of wrenching passages concerning the censorship troubles of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and the exquisite poem “Song of a Man Who Is Loved.” Also some nifty one-liners at the expense of literary reviews (including Frieda’s “Christ rose only once, but Lawrence did the trick many times,” and D.H.’s “I can’t die, I hate the critics too much”). Still, it’s easy to understand their impatience.
Before Look! We Have Come Through!, I’d have sworn Steven Dawn could play any emotion a director might demand of him, but it’s now clear that “perky” isn’t in his register. His D.H. appears to be having fun at first, sneaking up behind Naomi Jacobson’s Frieda as she introduces herself to the audience and startling her out of her wits. But long before Petosa’s staging asks him to do a cartwheel in the aisle, Dawn’s attempts at boyish impetuosity have become forced. And his Nottinghamshire accent, which chiefly consists of substituting the odd ‘o’ for ‘u’ so that “but” becomes “bot,” and “hug” “hog,” hardly seems worth the trouble he expends on it.
Jacobson’s German-accented delivery of Frieda’s caustic cracks is more persuasive, but her material is thinner. For obvious reasons, the literary lines tend to emanate from her writer/husband, leaving her to offer mostly transitions or commentary cribbed from newspapers. Both performers are more effective in the evening’s later stages, when anguish concerning censorship and D.H.’s respiratory problems overtakes their marriage.
Those health issues are lent added resonance by a photo in the lobby reminding audiences that the husband and wife team of Richard Bauer (who has recently been undergoing cancer treatments) and Halo Wines workshopped Look! We have Come Through! a few seasons ago. It’s easy to envision what their offstage chemistry must have brought to this collection of literary snippets but hard to imagine any bonding agent strong enough to turn an evening so fragmentary into a dramatic whole.
The first chuckle in Round House Theatre’s almost alarmingly funny staging of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya comes before anyone has said a word. It is, in fact, for something that’s not said, merely breathed: a character’s exasperated exhalation on realizing that the small talk he was about to make not only won’t interest the servant to whom it’s addressed but doesn’t even really interest him.
His snort as he decides not to speak gets a chuckle from the audience and is followed by perhaps another minute of silence that is, for some reason, increasingly funny. These two are killing time on a Chekhovian front porch that you know will soon be populated by a half-dozen characters who will smother each other with suffocating sighs. Their boredom will be palpable, their complaining nonstop. Already, the prospect is oddly amusing.
And once the others arrive, the haymakers start flowing as swiftly as the vodka.
Haymakers? In Chekhov? Everybody has heard that the author called his plays comedies, but has anyone this side of the Urals ever laughed at them? Sure, an adaptation by David Mamet will make a difference. The phrasing’s bound to have a certain punch. Maybe that tree-hugging Doctor Astrov (Marty Lodge) will come on like a Sierra Club member, and Vanya (Jerry Whiddon) like Frasier Crane, and the professor’s empty-headed wife (Kathryn Kelley)who turns them both into lovesick schoolboyslike a Valley girl.
But no. As it happens, Nick Olcott’s staging is relatively straight. Rosemary Pardee’s costumes have a rumpled, lived-in character, and the actors are mostly playing things with only a slightly accelerated naturalism. No one appears to be trying very hard for laughs. Still, on opening night, they sure were getting them. So many, in fact, that I started scribbling punch lines in my program. Here’s a sample:
“This is not a happy home.”
“My personal lifeI am pleased to swear to God there is not one good thing in it.”
“I don’t like people.”
Riotous, no? Well trust me, they inspired laughs as broad as anything in the first act of Neil Simon’s Proposals. The evening isn’t nearly as funny overall, of course. In a Simonized world, the laughs are continuous; in Vanya they’re punctuation. This is, if memory serves, the same translation used by Louis Malle in Vanya on 42nd Street, which was hardly hilarious.
Even so, there’s a giddiness in the buildup of hostilities between characters who are perpetually at cross-purposes. By the time Vanya grabs a gun and starts chasing his obtusely ungrateful brother-in-law (gruffly sympathetic Sam McCready), followed by their unloved niece (Jane Beard working hard but in vain to appear homely) and a raft of servants, we may not have wandered all the way from the land of Marx to the land of the Marx Brothers, but we’re getting there.
Obviously, Olcott is tapping into something unusual in his interpretation. His program notes indicate that he was inspired by that Far Side cartoon in which the dog owner says, “Bad dog, Ginger. I’m going to have to punish you, Ginger,” and all the tail-wagging mutt hears is, “Blah blah Ginger! Blah blah blah Ginger!” And that does explain the oddly disconnected manner in which these self-obsessed characters shout past one another, chatter idly about the death of the forest that surrounds them, and matter-of-factly deal with a suicide attempt.
But there’s more to the delicacy and sophistication of the performances than that, or the final scenein which life returns to a normalcy that’s no longer supportablewouldn’t be so suddenly wrenching. For in the end, Olcott’s production delivers what you expect of Chekhov: the sadness and the desperation of people who know their existence will be filled with a dull ache until the moment the life flickers out of their eyes. It just lets you chuckle on the way to the graveyard.CP