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It’s not very often that a contemporary playwright needs to curb his urge to entertain. Ordinarily, the reverse is more nearly the case, with earnest dramatists concentrating on messages and motives and leaving the actual amusing of audiences to interpreters.
But the most serious challenge facing director Tom Prewitt in staging Norman Allen’s comic ghost story, Melville Slept Here, lies in keeping spirits, of both the literal and figurative sorts, in check. The author is so adept at crowd-pleasing gestures that he keeps undercutting his own material, settling for laughs when he could provoke and for provocation when he might more profitably intrigue.
He begins with a game of Trivial Pursuit played by a decidedly odd trioDwayne and Emma Stevenson (Alan Wade and Andrea Hatfield), the married, fiftysomething caretakers of a historic Cape Cod mansion known as Biddle House, and Thomas Harcourt (John Lescault), an erudite sea captain who turns out to be a hundred-and-fiftysomething ghost.
Harcourt has been haunting Biddle House ever since he died there in circumstances that won’t come to light until deep in Act 2, and he proves finealbeit physically insubstantialcompany for Dwayne and Emma. That’s especially true when he’s waxing poetic over his own era (“The world once flowed at the pace of a healthy heartbeat”) and quoting Hawthorne, Whitman, and Melville. Cracking wise about such modernisms as skyscrapers (“Do you people not read the Old Testament?”), he’s less acute, but perhaps that’s to be expected.
For their part, the Stevensons are the sort of couple who bicker good-naturedly to demonstrate their mutual devotion. Emma (a young Frances Sternhagen as played by Hatfield) is uncomfortably aware that by forever urging her historian husband to avoid stress after his recent heart attack (even to the point of avoiding lovemaking), she has become his chief source of stress. Wade’s affectionate, crotchety Dwayne, on the other hand, positively aches for the sort of history-based dispute that might set his pulse racing again.
Harcourt’s murky story, which doesn’t jibe with the official version offered by Elsie Biddle (Grainne Cassidy) and her dotty mother (Nancy Grosshans), would seem to be just the thing. And as the captain embroiders the mystery with literary anecdotes and tales of a gay (in the modern sense) 19th-century courtship, the play briefly threatens to develop a smidgen of heft. Until, that is, the author counters the smattering of provocative elements he has introduced into his ghost story with plot developments conventional enough to have been cribbed from a Disney movie. Once literary concerns have been supplanted by worries over encroaching condos (“These trees are older than the country itself”), and Dwayne’s historical sleuthing has been reduced to a search for Red-Nose Bjornson, there’s no turning back. A marriage of disparate materials is clearly what Allen was after, but as with most things, crass overwhelms class, and by the time characters who can’t see the ghost have started seeing him purely because it’s convenient for the author, the evening has settled for a jokey glibness.
Still, Prewitt, his cast, and especially the production’s designers put up a valiant struggle before slipping into Ghost and Mrs. Muir-dom. Lou Stancari’s off-kilter Biddle House, surrounded by an angled forest of fabricwhich can be transformed into windblown sails with a little help from a subtle shift in Daniel MacLean Wagner’s lighting, a rush of waves from sound designer David Maddox, and a passing breezeis dreamily evocative. Costumer Heidi Alexander’s character-defining hues and textures are also sure assets.
And the performances are similarly complex, even when there’s not a lot to support them. If Elsie’s sole purpose seems to be to get on everyone’s last nerve, Cassidy can still lend her an edgy air of dignity. And while the elder Mrs. Biddle is on hand mostly to offer goofy one-liners (“She bruised her coccyx….I didn’t know women had coccyxes”), Grosshans undeniably delivers them with addled flair. Jason Patrick Bowcutt makes a pipe-playing lad seem affectingly vulnerable with a minimum of lines. And Lescault’s sea captain has gravity enough to suggest where the play might go should Allen decide to emphasize its literate qualities over its comic ones.
Which is still a possibility, since Melville Slept Here has evolved to its present shape during a two-year process at Signature. A note in the program indicates that the show began as a series of setups and punch lines, and grew to be something gentler and more character-baseda comedy with patches of resonance. There’s no reason this process need stop simply because an audience has been invited to watch.
You may have heard that playwright Sherry Kramer is biting off more than she can chew in Things That Break, her free-form comedy about sibling rivalry, heart surgery, and the American dream, which wraps up its run this weekend at George Mason University’s Theater of the First Amendment. Don’t believe it. The lady chews like a champion.
Chomps, actually, greedily gobbling up insights that would surely escape lesser writers, just as she did when introducing the metaphysics-obsessed lesbian lovers of David’s Redhaired Death. In fact, when the urge to take smaller bites occurs to Kramer (as it apparently did in Nano and Nicki in Boca Raton, a comedy so negligible she’s no longer listing it in her program bios), she should definitely resist. Her gift is for antic flights of fancy of the sort that smart directors like William Foeller can send spinning into the stratosphere, not the down-to-earthiness any sitcom writer can produce.
What appears to bug Kramer’s detractors this time out (and for all I know they’re limited to a single reviewer at the Post, since last Friday’s near-capacity audience seemed to be having a ball) is that she’s munchingalmost literallyon glass. That means there’s a bit of splintering to be dealt with. Nothing serious. Just some fantasy sequences in the hospital waiting room where a well-to-do family is awaiting the outcome of its patriarch’s heart operation. The Demerys are, from all appearances, a jumpy bunch under the best of circumstances. These are not the best of circumstances.
“I suppose a doctor would just call this an anxiety attack,” burbles wife Elizabeth (Nancy Robinette), nervously facing down the cobra that’s emerging from her knitting basket. Son Peter (Kyle Prue) barely notices her struggle to maintain composure, so occupied is he in trying to distract his sister Jackie (Jennifer Mendenhall) from shredding her coiffure in the restroom and replacing all the vending machine sandwiches with decorative heirlooms from the family glassworks she’s planning to burn down.
Also unsettling are the doctors who pop by in pack-of-cards drag, singing rousing choruses of “Humpty Dumpty.” And tap-dancing Western Union men who deliver operating-chamber bulletins in staccato, dit-dit-dittery flurries. And Nurse Pitkin (Rosemary Knower), who functions as a cheerful mistress of ceremonies, brightly explaining how she rose from a conventional position in the kidney ward to become Head “Story” Nurse where, “in the final dialysis,” her talent for wordplay is being better utilized.
All the central performances are gems, with Prue and Mendenhall bouncing insults off each other as if sibling ribaldry had only just been invented, while Robinette works solo in a bid to free herself from the vines and tendrils that keep erupting from seat cushions to ensnare her. Knower’s Nurse Pitkin is a briskly funny quick-change artist, Irv Ziff, Barbara Rappaport, and Ralph Cosham are amusing in lesser roles, and the hangers-on (TFA’s shows usually include an ensemble of George Mason University students) have been well drilled by director Foeller. Also fine are the physical effects he and his designers have marshalled in the play’s support, from the rhythmic tinkle of broken glass being swept up during the 10-minute intermission (courtesy of sound guy David Maddox), to Howard Vincent Kurtz’s Wonderland-inspired costumes, to the truncated spaces designer Tony Cisek creates with curtain-walls and angled dropcloths.
At the center of all this activity lies a fairly straightforward tale of family members adrift, anxious about the fate of a loved one and about their own fates should death overtake him. “I will not melt,” murmurs Jackie during an Act 2 excursion to the Demery glass furnace; “I will shatter.” And indeed, as gurney-gondolas get poled to the operating room, and long-dormant glassworks get fired up for one final meltdown, you do get the impression that family, sanity, and by extension, society itself, are more fragile than most of us are willing to let on.
The Demerys do let on, which means that Things That Break becomes the tale of how a social contract grown brittle with neglect offers little protection even to those who own factories and objets d’art. “The Demerys do not destroy something beautiful,” says some prescient soul, “the Demerys prefer to let something beautiful destroy them.”
That’s the play in a phrase. Not all that difficult a chew, is it?CP