Scratch a playwright these days and you’ll likely find a polemi cist. Where drama once ex plored the seven deadly sins (with a heavy emphasis, naturally, on lust), it now deals primarily with issues. Ibsen got the ball rolling, Shaw gave it a shove, and today, the dramatist without an agenda—be it concerning AIDS, apartheid, feminism, or whatever—risks being considered shallow.
Even so, the arrival in a single week of plays dealing with abortion, priestly pedophilia, and the corporate rape of the Third World counts as remarkable. Jane Martin’s Keely and Du, Mart Crowley’s For Reasons That Remain Unclear, and Jon Robin Baitz’s 3 Hotels all wear their social concerns proudly, as if authorial interest in real-world issues were a badge of honor. All are essentially staged debates that ask audiences to choose sides as much on the basis of intellectual arguments as on characterization.
Three Hotels, which the Kennedy Center has imported intact from off-Broadway to the Eisenhower Theater, is both the oddest and most successful of the three. Baitz has structured the evening as a trio of monologues—two by Kenneth Hoyle (Ron Rifkin), an American executive who markets powdered baby-formula in underdeveloped nations, and one by Hoyle’s wife, Barbara (Debra Monk).
The executive reveals himself in his first monologue, delivered between sips of martinis in a Moroccan hotel room, to be a Machiavellian monster. As the self-styled “Albert Speer of baby formula,” he boasts of peddling his nutritionally worthless product in remote villages by sending out saleswomen dressed as nurses and nuns. Whether firing loyal subordinates (“It’s been a red-letter day when it comes to unemployment”) or dismissing negative media assessments of his company (“It was us, Union Carbide, and the Dalkon Shield; all that was missing was the Pinto”), he’s cool and detached. His belief that “any action is justifiable as long as the results are profitable” has made him a rising star in the company.
But while Kenneth expects his career to peak at an upcoming corporate meeting in the Virgin Islands, Barbara’s monologue from a St. Thomas hotel room lets us know that things didn’t go quite as planned. In fact, she “deep-sixed” him with a speech that started as a pep talk for corporate wives and ended as a free-associating indictment of the company’s despicable policies. Barbara recounts the speech—which ranges from tips on greeting Third World dictators to horrifying references to the violent death of her son in Brazil—without histrionics of any kind, her calm, relaxed manner making its incendiary content all the more riveting. The play’s third and final scene finds her husband in a Mexican hotel during a Day of the Dead festival, recording a message for his senile mother about the collapse of his professional and marital lives.
If the play were a debate on corporate criminality, it wouldn’t pack much punch—anyone want to defend the starving of infants?—but Baitz has something more complex in mind. Largely by means of verbal feints, he provides a portrait of a marriage that’s unraveling as its participants move from naiveté to cynicism. In an odd way, Kenneth and Barbara, who met in the Peace Corps while flirting with notions of changing the world, have finally realized their dream. As representatives of corporate America, they now have the capacity to alter the lives of millions and have done so, wreaking havoc in the process. What the audience witnesses is their struggle to maintain what equilibrium they can as they deal with their guilt.
Baitz’s script isn’t entirely one-sided. Kenneth actually seems to be moving toward acknowledging the company’s mistakes as his wife pulls the rug out from under him. Given his record, it would be foolish to expect anything more than token stabs at reform, but it’s significant that the author has made Barbara the play’s conscience, while giving her only the power to undercut and dismantle. Her executive husband, on the other hand, has the power to create and improvise, but only as long as he toes the company line and is ruthless in the pursuit of profits.
Audiences looking for metaphors may find echoes of the NAFTA debate in the play’s profit-vs.morality matchup. Barbara’s eleventh-hour horror at her family’s socializing with corrupt Third World officials sounds a bit like Perot’s sudden reluctance to do business with Mexico because it doesn’t have strong pollution controls. Neither carries much moral weight, coming so late in the business day. Barbara may be able to fudge the issue of direct accountability by taking a few parting shots as she walks away, but nothing she says or does will effect the company’s underlying business practices.
Joe Mantello’s direction is clean, clear, and understated enough that the evening doesn’t feel like amorality play except in its initial moments. Once the characters assert themselves—and since both Rifkin and Monk inhabit their roles like second skins, that happens quickly—3 Hotels becomes ferociously involving. Loy Arcenas’ single set, which is transformed into three remarkably different hotel rooms by Brian MacDevitt’s lighting, contributes to a claustrophobic feeling that slowly engulfs the principals, the play, and the audience.
Claustrophobia is also among the aims of Jane Martin’sKeely and Du, Horizons Theater’s first production at Gunston’s Theater One. It is the story of a severely strained but genuine friendship that blooms between a pregnant rape victim and the elderly pro-life nurse who holds her prisoner in order to prevent her from having an abortion. After being kidnapped while under sedation at an abortion clinic, Keely (Elizabeth Piccio) awakens to find herself handcuffed to a bed in a secluded basement. Her captors—Du (Barbara Rappaport) and a right-wing Christian pastor named Walter (Steven Dawn)—tell her that she and her unborn child have been taken into “protective custody.” For the next few months, they will be her family.
Keely, who is already hysterical, panics even more at this announcement. Her pregnancy having resulted from a brutal rape by her ex-husband, she feels she’s had about all the family she can take. But when she screams this at her captors, they’re unmoved. They not only know about her circumstances, they have chosen her because of them. Their underground anti-abortion group is seeking to make a political point by choosing a rape victim for what it calls “Operation Retrieval.” Emotional arguments will not sway them. She’s there for the duration, destined to be proselytized to and cared for by people who regard a woman’s right to choose as extremely limited. Walter tells Keely the group’s plan is to release her once it’s too late for her to abort, and then to provide support for whatever choice she makes at that point. They’ll pay all hospital costs, plus child support, for the first two years of the baby’s life, or they’ll arrange for adoptive parents if Keely wants to give the baby up. Du leaves no doubt that their resolve will not be shaken.
What follows is a slow thaw in personal relations between captive and caretaker that does nothing to compromise their divergent beliefs on abortion. Keely is startled to find herself bonding with the motherly Du. And by the time they’ve been together a month, they’re both making fun of Walter, who tends to fly into rages when his views are questioned, and then backs all over himself apologizing for having overstepped the bounds of civility. “He is with God,” Du says at one point, “but he is insufferable.”
It doesn’t take long to realize that the playwright will keep the hostage situation going for precisely as long as there are still positions to be staked out by her characters. Credit Martin with finding a neatly melodramatic way to wrap up the plot and with crafting an eloquently simple final scene which concedes gracefully and with a certain dramatic power that minds are unlikely to be changed by argument in this debate. The performers acquit themselves capably under Leslie Jacobson’s unfussy direction, creating genuine dramatic tension from a topic that may seem to have played itself out. Keely and Du is smart about articulating the debate, which doubtless accounts for the fact that it will be one of this season’s most frequently produced plays at resident theaters around the country.
Despite the best efforts of Olney Theater’s publicists, nothing about Mart Crowley’s For Reasons That Remain Unclear remains unclear for more than a few seconds, so I’m going to ignore their requests that critics not give away the plot. Once it’s been said that the author of The Boys in the Band has crafted a play involving an aging priest, a young writer, and an incident from their joint past that (in the words of a press release) “one can’t forget and the other doesn’t want to remember,” the jig is pretty much up anyway.
The priest, whose name is Conrad (Ken Ruta), is the one who doesn’t want to remember, and as he murmurs about his days as a schoolteacher in Mississippi, “helping those boys believe in themselves,” it’s hard not to get a slightly clammy feeling. Not that the writer is any more appealing. As played by Philip Anglim, Patrick is a creepy libertine; he is on assignment in Rome, churning out screenplays for “the brothers Warner.” By his own account, Patrick spends most of his free time shopping or picking up strange men. When the vacationing priest asks him for directions, Patrick recognizes the voice of the man who molested him as a child and is intrigued by the fact that Conrad doesn’t know to whom he’s talking. The play unfolds as a long game of cat and mouse, with Patrick alternately purring and clawing to get the unwitting Conrad to reveal himself.
The problem is that once the, uh, cat is out of the bag, the play has nowhere to go. Patrick is looking for psychic vengeance (“I want you to know that you are responsible for the death of a soul”) while Conrad is looking for absolution, and Crowley is determined that both shall be delivered. Though the characters seem at times to have been developed through focus groups—so adept are they at coming up with neat childhood anecdotes that explain their behavioral tics—the trouble lies as much with the direction as with the play. John Going’s unsubtle staging relies entirely too much on lingering glances, pregnant pauses, and overtly flirtatious stage business. Both actors sit on chair arms far more than normal people ever would and chase one another relentlessly around Patrick’s hotel room, lounging on the bed, posing at the window, and circling furniture like caged beasts. All this is so overplayed that when Ruta’s flustered Conrad heads for the bathroom at one point, giving Anglim a moment to show the emotional toll being exacted on Patrick, the only way he can top what he’s been doing all evening is to practically fall to the floor in anguish.