Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Tale of Two Playwrights

This week offered Bay area theatergoers a curious comparison:  two major regional theater companies opened their seasons with works by two extremely prolific contemporary playwrights whose work is well known to audiences. On Tuesday, the Marin Theatre Company opened its season with a production of  Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune by Terrence McNally.  The following night, A.C.T. added another link to its long working relationship with Tom Stoppard by presenting the West Coast premiere of Rock 'n' Roll.  

Both playwrights have a history of producing award-winning plays over the course of the past several decades.  Both men are master craftsmen in their own right.  So it was interesting see how effectively their words were brought to life onstage.

In recent years, McNally has written a series of not-so-great plays and a few genuine clunkers. But when he is in top form -- as he was when he wrote Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune -- he possesses an uncanny gift for making extraordinary sounds emerge from the mouths of the most ordinary people.  While his play's opening moments -- which show Frankie and Johnny fucking their brains out in her darkened studio apartment  -- may have shocked and titillated audiences back in 1987 (when the play premiered off Broadway with Kathy Bates and Kenneth Welsh in the lead roles),  the shock value is much less these days.  

Once they reach orgasm, the lights come up, and McNally's tense bedroom  duet for two extremely insecure, battered and unhappy souls gets under way, the evening's success depends on solid acting and strong direction.  McNally choreographs his mating dance very slowly and meticulously as Frankie and Johnny scope each other out and cagily dance around each other's black holes of neediness.   

Director Jasson Minadakis paced the action very carefully throughout the evening, with the small apartment acting like a cage in which two animals kept trying to establish their territoriality.  Terri McMahon's wounded Frankie kept struggling to keep her aggressive partner at arm's length.  Rod Gnapp's predatory Johnny used every bit of his macho bluster, hungry sinew, and frightened determination to pierce Frankie's emotional armor.  

Kat Conley's unit set offers a perfectly angled frame in which to watch these two wounded characters slowly let each other invade their personal spaces as they each let down their defenses. Allowing themselves to become vulnerable finally leads McNally's unlikely couple to embrace the possibility of a loving relationship.

Terri McMahon & Rod Gnapp (Photo by: Ed Smith)

Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune toys with the old warning that "I am your biggest fear and your best fantasy."  It's not easy to make waitresses and short order cooks sound eloquent, but when given the opportunity, McNally has a knack for transforming exhausted pedestrian souls into tired albeit inspired poets. 

Enhanced by Michael Palumbo's lighting, the soliloquies written by McNally shine with the naked tenderness of yearning and defeatism. Marin Theater Company's production builds slowly and with a steady glow so that, by the end of the play - as the two lovers brush their teeth while watching the sun rise over Manhattan -- the audience has taken Frankie and Johnny to their hearts.

Such an intimate and delicate relationship with the audience was nowhere to be found in Stoppard's new play.  Known for his extremely complex and verbose scripts, much of Rock 'n' Roll's first act felt like a rather dull exercise in academic mental masturbation. The second act occasionally felt like an English countryside version of The Man Who Came To Dinner with an irascible Communist curmudgeon playing the role of Sheridan Whiteside.  

I found it curious that a play which chronicles 22 years of the history of rock 'n' roll could make a youthful passion for music seem so tepid. The great irony here, of course, is that when it comes to dealing with people who are fanatic about their record collections, it was McNally who aced it with his characterization of Mindy in The Lisbon Traviata.  

Rock 'n' Roll offers audiences a disappointingly schizophrenic evening in the theater.  There is, of course, the background of rock'n'roll music as it grows and develops.  The audience also witnesses the evolution of a supremely unhappy academic family headed by a bloviating egomaniac.  And then there is the political side of things, as an exchange student returns home to Prague to experience political turmoil in his native Czechoslovakia.  

As the play opens, we meet the pompous university professor (whose self-absorption might easily have led him to believe that he was the only thing still holding the Communist Party together), his Saphically inspired wife (who will eventually die of cancer), their hippie  teenage daughter, and Jan, the exchange student from Czechoslovakia with a passion for rock 'n' roll music.

As the action kept shifting between Cambridge and Prague, I found Act I of Stoppard's play surprisingly alienating.  Despite various debates over academic ways to interpret text and the importance of recordings by the Czech band, The Plastic People of the Universe, I was unmoved and disappointed in the first act's character development Whereas Stoppard's fierce intellectual banter usually keeps audiences on their toes as they struggle to grasp the text and connect the dots, I didn't get the sense that people were particularly interested in what was being discussed onstage.  Instead, two major cultural revolutions had been reduced to a decidedly ineffective lump of uninspired, dull stage blather.

Toward the end of the Act I, when Elinor (the professor's dying wife) warned an aggressive young female grad student to leave her husband alone or else, before she died, she would take a certain book and "shove it up your rancid cunt," I began to worry if Stoppard might be losing his legendary wit and resorting to cheap laugh lines to keep his audience's attention.

Rene Augesen & Jack Willis (Photo by Kevin Berne)

The most memorable moment of the evening came when a more mature and world weary Jan confronted his aging professor/mentor, Max, by stating "Your problem is that you've always been wrong and now you know it."  Headed by Maneol Felciano (Jan), Jack Willis (Max), Rene Augesen (Eleanor in  Act I and her grown daughter Esme in Act II),  Delia MacDougall (Lenka),  Summer Serafin (the younger Esme in Act I and her daughter Alice in Act II), Jud Williford (Ferdinand), and Anthony Fusco (Esme's estranged husband, Nigel), the large cast struggled valiantly to bring Stoppard's text to life.

Under Carey Perloff's direction, it was interesting to see how often Jan's Czech accent evaporated into thin air and how difficult it was to make Stoppard's play hold the audience's attention.  Although the playwright is often very facile at weaving complex dramatic webs for his characters to navigate, Rock 'n' Roll seemed more like a cross-cultural mishmash barely held together by the sputtering last gasps of Communism and the athletic spit of rock'n'roll musicians.

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