“I’ve got to fly,” says a frustrated Amelia Earhart halfway through the second act of MetroStage’s Earhart, at Church Street Theater. But Rona Waddington’s awestruck portrait of the pioneering aviator’s life is so resolutely earthbound that by the time Delia Taylor gets around to delivering that line, you’ll want to shout back at her, “So take off, already!”
It’s not MetroStage’s stylish production that’s the trouble. The characters, smartly attired in nifty Depression-era duds, go through their paces in a sparely appointed space that serves alternately as airfield, office, beach, and living room, and designer Carl Gudenius frames the whole business with a brash, dramatically skeletal structure that conjures up images of wing struts and hangars and catwalks. It’s aggressive, a nod to the explosive energy of the decade that launched the stunt-aviation phenomenon, and it’s always lurking at the boundaries of vision, a constant reminder of how completely Earhart’s persona was tied to her career.
That may be the primary problem here. Waddington, a Canadian playwright and actor, seems to be interested in the personal Earhart, and there are places where she succeeds in creating believable human relationships. (Fine performances by Larry Daly as Earhart’s dedicated flight coordinator and Julie-Ann Elliott as the aviator’s musta-been-cold-in-my-shadow sister help immeasurably.)
But Earhart’s primary emphasis is on Amelia and her publisher/promoter/husband, George “G.P.” Putnam (Michael Chaban), and that relationship never really comes into focus. Waddington understands that they were two strong personalities, interdependent yet intensely individual, but she doesn’t quite seem to know how to explain why the love of a good man wasn’t enough for Earhart. So she gives her heroine awkward lines like, “I just have to [pilot a small plane around the world even though I may be pregnant . It’s like I said—I need to fly.” It probably would have been easier and more effective to acknowledge the possibility that Earhart was bisexual, but that notion never seems to have crossed Waddington’s horizon. The play operates instead on the assumption that Earhart just couldn’t let anyone (audience included) get too tight a grip on who she was; as a result, all of Chaban’s swagger and all of Taylor’s determined spunk can’t bring their characters to life.
If Earhart suffers from a dearth of characterization, Karim Alrawi’s Deep Cut, produced by Consenting Adults for the Odd Evenings series at Woolly, labors under a surfeit. There’s Bertrand, an insufferably self-centered Heideggerian philosopher who dabbles in dowsing and Tao; his flighty ex-wife Jennifer, a British expatriate who’d rather not talk about anything more troubling than table settings; and Chan, a taciturn Chinese surgeon who’s still recovering from being tortured by authorities after the Tiananmen Square uprising. And Alrawi’s talky, intensely emotional play isn’t even about them.
It’s about Jennifer’s fiance, a 50-ish American psychiatrist named Andrew, and his half-Egyptian daughter, Farah, who’s left her Mormon missionary husband and come home to confront her father (and her late mother, who’s buried under a highly symbolic “crimson tree” overlooking the sea) about recently resurfaced memories from her childhood—memories that have to do with a servant girl in their Egyptian household and with the controversial practice of female circumcision.
Anyone who knows anything about Consenting Adults won’t have much trouble guessing which side of the argument Alrawi comes down on. Andrew is able to grudgingly acknowledge that the procedure, in which the clitoris and sometimes other parts of the female anatomy are removed (frequently under less than hygienic conditions) is horrific by Western standards. But he insists that it wasn’t his place to challenge another culture’s tradition. “Every act of charity is an imposition of my values on another people who have their own priorities,” he says. “How can I say that my values are better than theirs?”
The others, of course, disagree. Chan wonders if Andrew would have interceded on his behalf if he’d been in China during the almost-revolution; Jennifer wonders how close trouble would have to approach before Andrew stepped off his principled pedestal; Farah nearly comes apart when she realizes her father knew about what happened in Egypt and did nothing to stop it.
Trouble begins when explicit references are made to Star Trek’s Prime Directive, which as far as I’m concerned cheapens a serious debate by placing it within pop-culture parameters. (Please, no Trekker letters; I like the show as much as anyone else, but Alrawi’s whole point is that tidy philosophical constructs like Andrew’s don’t hold up when tested in the real world’s brutal laboratory. It’s hard to take the discussion seriously when it’s framed in Captain Kirk’s terms.) And though Alrawi clearly means for us to side with Farah, he never lets Andrew make a compelling case for his side of the argument, which is essential if her victory is to be more than a shallow one. The piece might play very differently to an audience that didn’t already agree with the playwright, of course, but here it’s just a dramatization of a painful issue, not an enlightening exploration of it.
As far as the production goes, it’s essentially a workshop staging, so it’s not fair to carp about the unassuming set (plastic patio furniture in front of cheap-looking latticework) or the fact that the actors appear to be wearing their own clothes. And I won’t complain too loudly or too specifically about the awkwardness of some of the characterizations, except to note that Rena Cherry Brown’s British accent was slightly too precious a phenomenon—and somewhat occasional besides. I will say that if Deena Lynn Rubinson (Farah) can overcome the self-consciousness that sometimes intruded on her performance, she could very well be an impressive actress. She’s a bracing presence in a production that’s crippled by its own earnestness.
The script, however, is a bit of a conundrum. Alrawi’s language is frequently lyrical but just as often oppressively pedestrian, and though Consenting Adults has excised whole chunks of dialogue, the characters still come off as unbelievably loquacious. The first half, in fact, is a bloated mess of tangential conversations that really don’t add much to the overall impact of the play. Alrawi may have been hoping to leaven the proceedings with humor when he sent Bertrand off on that spiel about the sexual excesses of the Heideggerian Circle’s annual Valhalla, but it falls deadly flat and tries the audience’s patience, besides. A little further trimming might be in order; I’d be willing to argue, in fact, that Deep Cut could do without Bertrand altogether—though I’m sure director David Bryan Jackson, who plays the crashing bore with disturbing competency, would disagree.CP