Loading...

Sex, Love, and Marriage come to Williamstown: Legacy, Off the Main Road, and Kinship at the Williamstown Theatre Festival

Cynthia Nixon and Chris Lowell in Carey Perloff's Kinship. Photo T. Charles Anderson.
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

 

Jessica Hecht and Eric Bogosian in Daniel Goldfarb's "Legacy." Photo T. Charles Anderson.
Jessica Hecht and Eric Bogosian in Daniel Goldfarb’s “Legacy.” Photo T. Charles Anderson.

Legacy
by Daniel Goldfarb

Williamstown Theatre Festival
Nikos Stage
July 1 – July 12, 2015

Oliver Butler – Director
Dane Laffrey – Scenic Designer
Jessica Pabst – Costume Designer
Justin Townsend – Lighting Designer
Dan Kluger – Sound Designer
Kyle Gates – Stage Manager

Cast:
Eric Bogosian – Neil Abrams
Halley Feiffer – Heart Fine
Jessica Hecht – Suzanne Kind
Justin Long – Jeremy Goodman

Like other arts institutions in the Berkshires the Williamstown Theatre Festival has had its share of ups and downs with what has been looking increasingly like a revolving door for artistic directors. The late Roger Rees, who created some especially intriguing programming, only lasted three years, Nicholas Martin, beset by illness, only two, and Jenny Gersten three. Most recently the programming seemed to be losing its luster. I for one began to find it harder and harder to find productions I was interested in seeing, much less writing about. The arrival this season of yet another new Artistic Director, Mandy Greenfield, came as a signal to start coming back. Ms. Greenfield arrives in Williamstown with a distinguished record as Artistic Producer at the Manhattan Theater Club, where her productions have been seen as favorable to rising playwrights and exciting in themselves. It struck me that some of Roger Rees’ ideas—excellent ones, like his fondness for eccentric little British plays of the 1970s, like David Storey’s Home (2008) and Simon Gray’s Quartermaine’s Terms (2009)—lingered on through Martin’s term. Under Gersten the Festival showed worrying signs of becoming more deeply enmeshed in the Broadway machine, and there seemed to be too many trivial or otherwise forgettable new plays. Greenfield’s debut season hints at a striking shift in values. For one thing, the recent and new plays seem considerably more interesting, and the revivals are important. The revival of interest in William Inge goes beyond 1950s chic, and it is only right that the Williamstown Theatre Festival should observe this…and mine the trove of Inge manuscripts brought to light in 2008, preserved but ignored in his hometown, Independence, Kansas. One can’t say that O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten has been neglected, after a 2012 production by the Pearl Theatre Company in New York and a turn as a Kevin Spacey vehicle in both London and New York, but what could be more nourishing artistically than major O’Neill?

In view of this, one can’t be surprised if the new Artistic Director is inclined to make a strong statement at the beginning of her first season. I’ve just seen the first two productions for this year, and they seem to do just that. Beyond the many virtues I’ll relate below, the two plays, one contemporary, the other apparently dating from the mid-1960s, remind me of other plays I’ve seen over the past season—in significant ways. And now there is a third, which at least attests to efficient damage control on the WTF stage.

Daniel Goldfarb’s Legacy seems a solid choice as a season opener, given the playwright’s prominence in the New York theater world, with a career built largely on stage rather than in tv. The matinee of Legacy I attended in the Nikos Stage was close to, if not entirely sold out. If the audience had come merely to see Jessica Hecht that would have been entirely understandable. Williamstown audiences have a special fondness for her intelligent, subtly honed performances. The word of mouth that packed the theater, however, must have also had a lot to say about Eric Bogosian’s equally compelling performance, the colorful supporting actors, Halley Feiffer and Justin Long, and the virtuosic timing of Oliver Butler’s direction—not to mention the considerable strengths of Goldfarb’s play.

Neil, no longer the hot novelist he once was, is sustained by a teaching job at Columbia, the concomitant faculty apartment, and his wife, Suzanne. Now past sixty, he’s wrestling with writer’s block (not the bottle, since this play is set in a Jewish milieu), and his capacious ego has been partly deflated by a statement in The New York Times, declaring his writing to be no longer relevant. (Masturbation has been a major theme in his fiction.) After he has finished a whining session about his predicament as if it were a satisfying lunch in one of his favorite restaurants, he announces a proposal to his wife—that they should have a child. With his art in shreds he is concerned about what he will leave behind. After seventeen years of what seems to have been a reasonably companionable marriage without children, foresworn because of the declining state of the world, Suzanne’s busy schedule, and the writer’s need and duty to concentrate on his work, Neil has decided that they should have a child. Suzanne, who is close to menopause and has been enjoying her marriage and her career as a collector of oral history from Holocaust survivors, is not thrilled by the prospect, and Neil sets to work with his best manipulative behavior, which she realizes is pretty much irresistible. This sets in motion a regimen of very expensive and unpleasant medical procedures under the guidance and care of Dr. Goodman, the best specialist in New York, a fan of Neil’s writings since early adolescence, and a rather obnoxious fellow.

Enter Heart Fine, one of Neil’s students, whom Suzanne has hired to put Neil’s chaotic papers in order (as part of his legacy, of course). The two women strike up a warm friendship out of their mutual admiration for Neil and the confidences which have passed between them. Heart, proud of her short story, “Self-Portrait Masturbating,” confesses that she is a genius, a fact that steels her to the mountain of debt she is accumulating as a writing student. She also confesses that Neil has told her about Suzanne’s difficulty in conceiving a child and other intimate details. Suzanne is not inclined to examine that too closely. Over Dr. Goodman’s strenuous objections the couple decide that Heart should carry the embryo they create with the aid of his science and she accepts. Suzanne insists that Heart live with them, sleeping on the sofa in Neil’s study. Suzanne tucks Heart in at night, as if she were her child. The doctor, as he is about to plant said embryo in Heart’s womb, is shocked to discover that she is pregnant with twins. We are not even surprised, since all the ingredients of a professor-student affair are lying around in plain sight, where only Neil’s loving wife fails to see them. Neil, mustering a brutal arsenal of casuistry and bullying, persuades the doctor to keep Heart’s pregnancy from Suzanne, who herself has experienced a false pregnancy, a sign of oncoming menopause. Neil, realizing that fatherhood is going to cost him sleep, time, and energy, eventually gets cold feet. He approaches Heart,using his usual powers of persuasion, with a proposal to abort one of the embryos. The young woman reluctantly agrees, telling Neil that their relationship is over. She has bonded with one of the embryos and insists on choosing which will be eliminated. The situation becomes even more seriously painful for her, when Dr. Goodman proves unable to isolate the undesired subject, who was a boy, as he informs Heart and a hovering Neil. After the surviving infant comes home to Suzanne, she and Neil have a mostly happy, intimate conversation in which she confronts him with the question whether he has ever slept with Heart, saying that it really wouldn’t matter to her. Neil lies transparently but effectively, denying any affair. Suzanne counters that she was lying when she said it didn’t matter. The play concludes with her deluded but blissful, not only with motherhood, but with her newly regained Jewish piety. She looks forward to monthly teas with Heart. They are such warm friends that there is a hint of lesbian affection. When the baby wakes up in the night, Neil leaves Suzanne to deal with it and goes to his study to write.

Neil is an amoral, narcissistic monster, a disgrace to basic humanity as well as the axioms of Jewish morality which float along the couple’s conversation like broken branches in a river. I can’t speak for the rest of the audience in this case, but I found myself disinclined to hate him. Goldfarb is no more interested in villains than he is in types—although Dr. Goodman, as played by Justin Long, is certainly a caricature. As the play ends, Suzanne is deeply content with motherhood—all because of the deceit she has accepted from Neil. Heart at that point is sadder but wiser as far as men are concerned, but she has her teas with Suzanne to look forward to. Neil, freed from his writer’s block, has his writing, his routine. Orson Welles said, “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” The plot Neil has contrived is unlikely to end happily. As a father, he is more likely than not to be a cipher in his child’s life, leaving a legacy of bitter resentment. During the course of the play we have heard a great deal about Neil’s method of drawing his stories from his own experience, of converting autobiography into fiction. His creativity as an artist is limited to a constricted masturbatory perimeter, and it will remain so, unless he manages to free himself from his narcissism. He has been keeping his new novel to himself. Heart already has a fairly clear notion of its contents. Happy, deluded Suzanne is headed for disaster. She is loving, adaptable, and generous enough to accept the bitter situation and to raise and love the child nobody else wants—perhaps, up to a point…but enough to save the infant from a blighted future? Of the threesome, Neil grew the least from the experience—virtually not at all. Heart has her disillusionment. Suzanne has, as she says, moved towards spirituality, as embodied in Jewish religious traditions, moving away from the record-keeping at the center of her work, about which she has already grown a bit cynical. (In this context Goldfarb offers some rather irreverent and amusing Holocaust humor.) The situational equilibrium and compromised contentment of the end are only as strong as the lies and delusion on which they are founded.

In Goldfarb’s world catastrophe remains latent. Only the audience—and perhaps Heart—can conceive of potential disaster. I would say that the extended abortion scene, in which quite a lot is discussed and decided before and during Dr. Goodman’s probing around Heart’s uterus in his unsuccessful attempt to get the undesired embryo to cooperate in its destruction, but not for the obvious reasons that would make certain audiences outside the Berkshires picket the theater. Goldfarb shows in clinical detail the mechanism science has provided to enable all who can afford it to get what they want—including a child late in life. We have lived with that technology for some time now, and we read about its ramifications in the newspaper, e.g the rights of surrogates, etc. This technology and the mentality it enables make the biblical idea of a child as a gift from God totally irrelevant, even absurd…or is the fertility industry absurd? Poor, likable Suzanne in her delusion drifts into that superannuated Biblical attitude. She is grateful for the gift she receives—one which may eventually demand bitter acceptance and a severe test of moral growth.

I mentioned that Legacy reminded me of another play I’ve recently seen. In fact I saw this play on the Barnard campus, a production of the superb Barnard/Columbia Ancient Drama Group, Ion, by Euripides—a political play within a family drama or vice versa, depending on your perspective at the moment. Creusa, the daughter of the autochthonous (i.e. literally born out of the ground as a half-snake) king of Athens, Erechtheus, was raped in her youth by Apollo. She becomes pregnant and leaves the child to the elements to conceal her shame as an unwed mother. Many years later, she and her husband, the foreign resident (metoikos) Xuthus, visit Delphi to find a cure for their childlessness. Xuthus misinterprets the oracle and believes that young Ion, a parentless temple slave, is his illegitimate son. He is thrilled in his delusion, and Creusa fears she may be pushed aside by this illegitimate heir. As a result she almost murders Ion and Xuthus. Apollo straightens things out in the end, and Creusa and Ion go through a moving recognition scene. Apollo instructs Creusa and Ion to keep his parentage a secret and to let Xuthus continue in his illusion that Ion is his biological son, to avoid reprisals similar to what Creusa has just done. The subterfuge seems legitimate, since Xuthus is not an Athenian citizen, only a metoikos, who does not enjoy the benefits and dignity of citizenship. This resolution, apparently made up by the playwright, is essential for the political dimension of the play, which, written late in the Peloponnesian War, contains a message relating to Athens’ relations with its Ionian allies and metoikoi. Euripides recommends that the Athenians respect the Ionians as blood relatives through Ion and perhaps treat the metoikoi a little better. Conversely the Ionians, who have been exploited ruthlessly by the Athenians, should remain loyal to their older autochthonous cousins, the Athenians. Illusion and misunderstanding run deep in the play and almost lead to mother murdering son and son executing mother.  In discussing the play I had to give some thought about just how I might explain all this—a situation in which family ties and citizenship are intertwined. The fabric of the Athenian polis and its empire is woven from blood ties—quite a different situation from whatever might concern a Jewish novelist on the Upper West Side of Manhattan who feels threatened by his waning reputation and reaches out for the most obvious sort of legacy that comes to mind, even if it is ill-suited to his age and his nature. In Goldfarb’s Legacy, we are very much at home. Many of us will recognize friends, relatives, or ourselves in the characters and their situation. Concerns of state, understood first by Apollo, justify the deception of Xuthus, while we can bring ourselves to accept Suzanne’s, because we don’t want to see her hurt any further, however much we know that it’s unlikely to last beyond the birth of Neil’s brainchild. Perhaps Daniel Goldfarb, a professor at Tisch, even knew something about this production of Ion, which, staged in May, which has been in process since the fall. If not, the parallels are still intriguing and enlightening.

Legacy, as constantly entertaining and comical as it often is, has some substance, and I think it’s been worth discussing them. As for a review of the show at WTF, I can only praise Oliver Butler’s economical, snappy direction and the excellent performances of the entire cast of five, one of whom plays a silent part. Jessica Hecht’s humanity, nuance, and sophistication are always a joy, and in this substantial part, she has ample room to work, even with the short rehearsal time of a summer production. She and Eric Bogosian, a very different kind of actor, make an ideal pair in their characters and as artists. Bogosian is no less a master of subtlety and understatement, to the point that he seems not to be acting at all. One simply accepts him there on stage, as if Neil Abrams were a acquaintance sitting across a room. Hecht, on the other, hand, doesn’t conceal her craft to the same extent, and at moments she lets us enjoy an artful turn of phrase, face, or body. The two gently contrasting methods work perfectly together.

Halley Feiffer was constantly active, steeping each phrase and gesture with color. There were two aspects to her characterization, at first we take Heart Fine as a something of a caricature of an overly confident MFA candidate who hasn’t yet been cut down to size, exaggerated midwestern accent and all. As her situation becomes more complex and uncomfortable, Heart gains depth, and Ms. Feiffer loses her accent. In the end, hers was a rich, convincing portrayal. Justin Long’s Jeremy Goodman clove a bit too consistently and for too long, to caricature, giving an often hilarious turn as a socially challenged and ethically dubious Manhattan specialist. He could have toned it down a little at points and shown more facets of a professional who at least tries to do a little better than is convenient for him in the end.

 

Estelle Parsons as Mrs. Bennet in William Inge's "Off the Main  Road." Photo T. Charles Anderson.
Estelle Parsons as Mrs. Bennet in William Inge’s “Off the Main Road.” Photo T. Charles Anderson.

Off the Main Road
by William Inge
Evan Cabnet – Director
Takeshi Kata – Scenic Designer
Paloma Young – Costume Designer
Ben Stanton – Lighting Designer
Ben Truppin-Brown – Sound Designer
Thomas Schall – Fight Director
Brandon Kahn – Stage Manager
Jared Janas – Wig & Make-up Design

CAST
Becky Ann Baker – Mrs. Burns
Aaron Costa Ganis – Gino
Jeremy Davidson – Manny Garrit
Joseph Huffman – Red
Jonothon Lyons – Police Officer
Howard W. Overshown – Jimmy Woodford
Estelle Parsons – Mrs. Bennet
Kyra Sedgwick – Faye Garrit
Daniel Sharman – Victor Burns
Mary Wiseman – Julia Conroy

If Legacy was contemporary and familiar, the opening production on the Nikos Stage was a period piece, taking us back to St. Louis, “between January and April 1966.” The author, William Inge, a native of Independence, Kansas, was drama critic for the St. Louis Star-Times between 1943 and 1946 and taught at Washington University between 1946 and 1949.  His first Broadway success, Come Back, Little Sheba, premiered in 1950, established him in New York, and he never came back to live in the Midwest again. While Inge’s success lasted—about a decade—he remained a creature of Broadway, network television, and Hollywood, but he continued to write about the Midwest, maintaining a reputation as the quintessential American playwright of that exotic region, virtually terra incognita to New Yorkers and Angelenos, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, except as a place certain people one knows came from. After his major Broadway successes were adapted as films and on television, he began to write directly for those newer media. His first film of that sort, Splendor in the Grass (1961), was a particular success, winning him an Oscar for his screenplay. Inge’s popularity began to crumble, however, through bad luck, the effects of his alcoholism, and the inexorable change of theatrical fashion. Depressed by the downward course of his career, his struggle with drinking, and his homosexuality, Inge committed suicide in 1973, poisoning himself with carbon monoxide, just like Manny Garrit in Off the Main Road.

Inge remained largely forgotten for quite a few years, with only sporadic revivals since Where’s Daddy? in 1966, but his plays have enjoyed a small renaissance in the new millennium, with successful revivals in Boston, London, and New York. In 2008 some two dozen unperformed, unpublished, and generally unknown plays of his were found, preserved and catalogued, but not consulted, in the William Inge Collection at the Independence Community College.  1 Of these, “The Killing,” a one-acter, was produced the following year in New York, and Off the Main Road was given a reading there by a distinguished cast. Otherwise American stages have hardly been flooded with undiscovered Inge masterpieces. Off the Main Road is not a masterpiece, really, but the Williamstown Theatre Festival deserves full marks for recognizing its viability and strengths, and for giving it a fully-staged production of such stage-savviness and skill that neither I, nor, it seemed, most of the audience, seemed inclined to examine the play with a loupe to identify its flaws. The play was obviously absorbing enough in itself to provide a stirring evening of richly colored acting, brilliantly paced and focused direction, all pointedly decorated as a period piece, looking perhaps five or so years earlier that the stated date of the action in 1966.

It seems we don’t know if Inge actually tried to get Off the Main Road produced. Probably not, unless it was among the dozen or so scripts he sent to his friend William Gibson for consideration at the Berkshire Theatre Festival, “which I didn’t like but thought we should stage for him,” as Gibson said in his post-mortem tribute to his friend in the New York Times, “—we never had a producer who didn’t detest them.” The play, with all its rough, awkward, and weak patches—from which Evan Cabnet’s masterful direction managed to distract my attention most of the time—should be considered unfinished, if the script never went through the try-outs and re-writes a play undergoes as it makes its way to Broadway—and Inge proved a fanatical tinkerer during this process, with the sort of results that brought him from St. Louis to Broadway and kept him there for a decade, with an unequalled series of four straight hits: Come Back Little Sheba, Picnic, Bus Stop, and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. All of these became successful Hollywood movies, and his original screenplay for Splendor in the Grass won him equal fame and prosperity. Then it all ended. Tastes changed, and Inge himself seemed to have lost his touch. He floundered after that, desperately trying to regain his success. The unending series of rejections wore him down eventually, and he asphyxiated himself in his garage on June 10, 1973. Off the Main Road belongs to this dismal period of decline. During his ascendancy, however, William Inge was the voice of the Midwest. He presented a version of his home country New Yorkers could find convincing and interesting, even intriguing. Beginning with a down-homey straightforwardness, he revealed the darker twists and desires that lay under the surface, always, in those four plays, giving a wide birth to the homosexuality which mostly plagued his own life. (He included gay characters and addressed the subject in two produced and published  plays of his later years, Where’s Daddy? {1966} and The Last Pad {1972}, as well as in a one-acter of the early 1950s, “The Boy in the Basement,” which he did not publish until 1962). In the four, it seems, he said all there was to say in this vein, and audiences grew tired of it. When he attempted to explore new ground in more sophisticated milieus, in which unwholesome complexities pulsed closer to the surface, producers and audiences hated it. Broadway audiences and the producers who cater to them are a fickle lot, and none of the major American playwrights have escaped ultimate failure after a decade or less of success—not O’Neill, Williams, Miller, or Albee. The celerity and completeness with which Inge was rejected was extraordinary. As Gibson said, “one of our three top playwrights had simply been liquidated.” Seeing a play like Off the Main Road is something like seeing the dark side of the moon.

The play is set in a tourist cabin 20 miles from St. Louis, early morning. A stylish, attractive middle-aged woman arrives in the company of her teenage daughter, Julia Conroy, who, in her discreet convent school outfit, gives a pre-adolescent impression. From the pushy, insinuating taxi driver who delivers them to this remote hideaway, we learn her name, Faye Garrit, and of her efforts to conceal it. The first thing she does is remove her sunglasses and conceal her black eye with makeup. That night, her husband got drunk and beat her. She thinks he is dangerous enough to kill her. She has decided to leave him before he actually does that. We don’t see quite the usual melodramatics of the abused wife fleeing a feared husband, because Faye has been brought up to maintain and certain tone, an aplomb well-floated in alcohol. After she orders coffee from the owner of the tourist cabins, she asks Julia to fetch a bottle from her luggage. She is well-practiced in using her daughter as an enabler, although they don’t see that much of one another. Julia has spend much of her life in boarding schools. We notice from the beginning that Julia is remarkably mature and self-possessed. When she finally agrees to stay with her mother and to go to the convent as a day student, she has weighed up the situation and acquiesces in full consciousness, more or less, balancing consideration for her mother against her own survival. At least this is what came through in this performance.

Mary Wiseman and Kyra Sedgwick in William Inge's "Off the Main Road." Photo T. Charles Anderson.
Mary Wiseman and Kyra Sedgwick in William Inge’s “Off the Main Road.” Photo T. Charles Anderson.

Julia is Faye’s daughter by her first marriage, to a St. Louis gentlemen with much money and many years. Faye’s mother, who arrives soon enough, pushed her into the marriage, considering Mr. Conroy to be the greatest catch in town. Mrs. Bennet’s visit opens up perspectives on severe personal and generational differences, which Faye, not overly endowed with reflection and self-control, handles with less equilibrium than her daughter manages the frictions between the following generation. The Bennets raised their daughter by giving her everything she wanted without arranging for her to learn to do anything, to acquire any skill that might make her fit into society other than as a wife and consumer of fashions and alcohol. Meanwhile, as Act I unfolds, we are hoping that Faye’s crazed, drunken husband, Manny, doesn’t arrive. He was a star baseball player on the Cardinals, now retired. He is a local hero, handsome, athletic, and he can get away with murder in St. Louis, figuratively, and in fact he does just that. Faye met him in a nightclub with companions who knew one other. Smitten by the way in which Manny was fascinated with her, not able to take his eyes off her, she fell in love with him. Her family bristled at her marriage to a sports figure with no breeding or education. His drinking became increasingly problematic after his retirement from the team. The couple had mutual aimlessness in common, but Manny’s drunken rages, which occasionally led to violence, approached the point where his sanity was questioned. Manny is the muscular, self-centered American male of Inge’s earlier plays run to seed. He still has some of his charm left, but it has gone rotten, leaving him both pathetic and dangerous.

At this point even Manny admits that a divorce is inevitable. His outpouring of contrition suggests that he hoping that she will leave the door at least slightly ajar for her. Meanwhile, Julia gets better acquainted with Victor, the cabin-owner’s son, who studies nuclear physics, with dreams of going to the moon. They fall in love, very nicely, and there is little difficulty between them, other than a masculine colloquial exclamation offensive to the girl. After they consummate their relationship, their love seems to be blossoming towards a happy future. She has managed to conceal all this from her mother, who is concerned about her lack of interest in the other sex.

We have heard about a long-time friend of Faye’s, Howard, who, with his gentle manners and consideration, would make “the perfect husband,” but in fact he “doesn’t care for women.” In the second act, he and Faye have a date for dinner and a symphony concert. Before this can happen, the odious cab driver, Gino, returns, and, with a mixture of braggadocio and persistence, he seduces Faye. She misses dinner and is late for the concert, but Howard delivers her back to the cabin and stays for a nightcap. Faye has said something to offend him and tries to patch it up, awkwardly. Howard is all too accustomed to being misunderstood and looked down upon by the straight majority, and the ensuing conversation between a man and a woman who have known each other since dancing school is awkward indeed—not only because of the situation Inge wanted to present. Of all the scenes in the play this seems decidedly incomplete in its text, and Inge’s extreme difficulty in writing about homosexuality is painfully apparent. It is said that, in his ambivalence about his sexual drives, he harbored a feeling of disapproval. He remained essentially in the closet, at least outside the circle of his close friends and the bars he frequented when he fell off the wagon. Present-day audiences will find Inge’s treatment of homosexuals and homosexuality (there is the familiar mother-fixation!) quaintly dated, and I imagine audiences in the 1960s would have had trouble knowing what to make of it. There is no shock value, but not much real insight either. Eventually Faye proposes marriage to Howard, which he immediately refuses, politely concealing his anger. Their conversation is interrupted by the entrance of a wildly drunk Manny, with Gino’s battered body in tow, sufficiently alive to take a few more punches and kicks—powerful ones. The police have been called, who overpower Manny with some difficulty. Outrageously, he still plays his old sports star act with the policemen, who knew him in his glory days, but to no avail. Howard has been attending to Gino. When Faye asks how he is doing, he answers that he is dead. This means a murder trial for Manny and a baring of the circumstances. Manny is acquitted on temporary insanity, and Faye, although she and Manny had been separated for some months and had filed for divorce, is disgraced for her infidelity with the cabdriver.

Julia has decided to return to the convent, and she has a painful farewell with Victor. Nothing has gone wrong in their relationship, but she has decided that love with a human being is not for her. She will return to the convent as a novice. Victor is deeply hurt, Faye and her mother are shocked and disapproving, but Julia wins Faye over, but not her grandmother or the audience. It seems like a waste, for an attractive girl who seems exceptionally competent at coping with her family situation. One would have liked to see her return to Victor after the end of her novitiate, as if it were an old-fashioned version of a year in an ashram. Faye’s approval seems unconvincing, but by that point one can understand her being rather addled by the disaster that has occurred around her. William Inge, only weeks before his suicide, addled in his own way by alcohol and valium, formally entered the Roman church, encouraged by his sister, with whom he lived at the time. It is possible that he was contemplating the conversion for some time, and that adds significant context to the conclusion of the play, which, however compellingly the company has played it, seems inconclusive and sketchy.

Manny and Gino the cab driver represent a fairly scathing image of the mainstream American male. Manny’s physical gifts gave him a few years of fame and influence, but beyond that, he is not much more than an animal. Gino has nothing to recommend him at all, and his preening and sexual aggressiveness are disgusting. After his conquest of Faye, his bragging about it around the bars set the keystone on his lowness. Inge perhaps put a bit of his own sad history in Manny’s decline, but on the whole he sets these characters up as specimens of depravity. We see more of the playwright in floundering Faye and pious Julia.

Greenfield, I think, made an intelligent decision to exploit the “discovery” in the Inge Collection and to give this interesting, often powerful script a first-rate production. Inge deserves a re-evaluation in any case, and in spite of the interest that’s been shown over the past decade, one can’t say that that is yet seriously underway. He was not the equal of his friend, Tennessee Williams, but he was a more comprehensive representative of the 1950s, and the strengths of his work is undeniable—and more apparent in plays that were actually performed in his lifetime. William Inge was the American Terence Rattigan. Natural Affection, which failed on Broadway after the newspaper strike of 1962 wiped out any publicity that might have drawn audiences. That and other late plays deserve attention, as do the earlier plays on which his reputation rested, before the 1960s brushed them away so rapidly and completely.

As I said, Off the Main Road reminded me of another play I’d seen this season, and that is George Kelly’s The Fatal Weakness (1946), magnificently revived by the Mint Theater Company of New York, with a period-perfect set and a near-perfect cast, led by the incomparable Kristin Griffith as Mrs. Paul Espenshade, all rattling off Kelly’s lines in the dazzling presto of early twentieth-century comic ensemble acting. In this fascinating play, cast in the style of a drawing room comedy, but with many disturbing resonances under the surface, a comfortably married Phildelphia lady with a grown-up, married daughter, discovers that her husband has been cheating on her…not with a younger woman, but with a rather dowdy career woman who seems mainly to provide him with a sympathetic ear. As the situation develops towards divorce, she continues to indulge her fatal weakness, an addiction to weddings. She will even sit in the back of the church at the nuptials of people she doesn’t even know. She and her husband have been amicably ignoring each other for so many years, but she has found nothing wrong with that, even after she confronts obvious evidence that her marriage is in a shambles. (The marriage of her repellent daughter to a very nice young man is going the same way.) In the end she insists, to everyone’s horror, on actually attending her ex-husband’s wedding.

It would require a full review to appreciate Kelly’s wealth of trenchant criticism of the relationship between the sexes, love, honesty, and marriage. Let it suffice to note the similarities between Mrs. Espenshade and Mrs. Garrit. Both have spent most of their adult lives as housewives, and both retain an unshakeable faith in marriage, in one way or another. For Mrs. Espenshade the admirable thing is no more than the ritual of marriage. One’s relationship with one’s mate is of little consequence. The point is to get married. For Mrs. Garrit it is the one place in life where she might find love, which she craves. By going back to her husband, with possibly fatal consequences, as her daughter flees to a nunnery, she is owning up to her situation. The situation of both women is equally absurd. In The Fatal Weakness, the daughter neglects her husband and daughter to follow a questionable spiritual leader. Kelly’s is the better play. It is actually finished, for one thing, and Kelly is far subtler artist of an older generation. His play is remembered as a flop, although its 119 performances are really not so bad, but it surely must have been forgotten as soon as its final curtain closed. It was Kelly’s last professionally produced play.

I think it is highly likely that Inge knew of the play, although he was in St. Louis at the time, and his jobs at the Star-Times and Washington University hardly afforded him the cash or the expense account to travel to New York to see plays. Yet, as a budding playwright with Broadway ambitions, he must have kept as well-informed as he could. He was avidly following the success of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie in 1945-46 and summarized the New York reviews in the Star-Times. His own Come Back, Little Sheba was produced by the Theatre Guild in 1950 after a long process of consideration, and The Fatal Weakness was produced by the Theatre Guild as well, running from November 1946 to March 1947. It is likely that Inge would have followed developments at the Theatre Guild with more than routine interest, as a possible gateway to success for himself, guided by Williams’ own New York agent, Audrey Wood. Kelly was also gay, as Inge might well have known through Williams or general gossip, and, as a major figure on Broadway in the 1920s, he would have been a worthwhile subject of study for a fledgling playwright. Kelly’s career had a similar trajectory to Inge’s. The brilliant success of his early years faded rapidly when his plays became more serious and acerbic. He struggled through the 1930s until, with The Fatal Illness, the curtain fell on his career. Unlike Inge, Kelly had a long-term relationship with one man for over fifty years, a man he had to present publicly as his valet, and he was able to live on more or less contentedly. It is most interesting to consider Inge’s mining The Fatal Attraction some twenty years after its time, as his own career was in its decline. Inge constantly rewrote his early plays, to use at least parts of them in later work. Off the Main Road may well be based on early sketches or notes he made in St. Louis. It is set there, after all. 2

Inge would have been thrilled by the WTF production. Evan Cabnet’s direction was perfect in timing and emphasis. I found myself so absorbed during the performance that the imperfections of the play only made a vague impression on me at the time. The entire cast was uniformly superb and made a tight ensemble together. Kyra Sedgwick’s Faye Garrit occupied her central place with wit, perception, and a charismatic flair. As her mother, Mrs. Bennet, Estelle Parsons exercised an equally riveting power over our attention in her secondary, but no less rounded and complex character. This was nothing less than a great actress at her best. Mary Wiseman, a recent Juilliard graduate, gave a memorable, nuanced portrayal of Julia Conroy, who was in fact the richest and most intriguing role in the play. This subtle tour de force should earn Ms. Wiseman steady stream of meaty roles in the future. Becky Ann Baker did a fine character turn as Mrs. Burns, going beyond the usual limits to reveal her sympathy, maturity, and restraint in managing the human tornado that has checked into her cabin. Of the men, Jeremy Davidson was brutal, loving, scheming, pathetic and more as Manny. Aaron Costa Ganis, energetic and colorful, gave us the full illusion of Gino. Most of all he felt like a real person on whom we were eavesdropping in a room next door. Howard W. Overshown was also believable and sympathetic as the amorous, hopeful Victor.

Takeshi Kata’s handsome detailed cabin interior was impressive in its design as well as its detail. Thomas Schall deserves special praise for his rip-roaring fights, which were as exciting as any Hollywood movie—from the classic studio years of course—and rather elegant as well.

These two productions conveyed a most definite message that Mandy Greenfield’s WTF will be all about quality: plays truly worth seeing, as well as first-rate material productions together with expert direction, and top casts of actors who are true artists in their field. She has set the bar very high indeed.

Cynthia Nixon and Chris Lowell in Carey Perloff's Kinship. Photo T. Charles Anderson.
Cynthia Nixon and Chris Lowell in Carey Perloff’s Kinship. Photo T. Charles Anderson.

Kinship
by Carey Perloff

Jo Bonney – Director
Rachel Hauk – Scenic Designer
Candice Donnelly – Costume Designer
Philip Rosenberg – Lighting Designer
Fitz Patton – Sound Designer
Jennifer Wheeler Kahn – Stage Manager

Cast
Cynthia Nixon – She
Chris Lowell – He
Penny Fuller – The friend/The Mother

This high standard of theatrical quality was also there to be admired in the direction and acting of WTF’s production of Carey Perloff’s Kinship, its American premiere. After a reading last summer at the Williamstown Theatre Festival by a cast which included Cynthia Nixon and Penny Fuller, who played in this fully staged version as well, the play was premiered in French translation at the Théâtre de Paris with Isabelle Adjani, as a free, updated adaptation of Racine’s Phèdre. This was originally intended as a companion piece to a production of Phèdre starring Adjani and to be directed by Patrice Chéreau. Sadly, he died before it could happen. Kinship had to go on alone—much to the disappointment of Adjani’s fans, who had been waiting eight years to see her on stage again and looking forward to seeing her in one of the great roles of French theater. (The reviews, all scathing, went even further.)

Perloff’s model shows through in the characters’ asides about their amorous feelings for one another and is literally indicated (“hint, hint!”) by the “strange” play the characters go to see in a small community theater in the West Coast city they inhabit, presumably San Francisco, where the playwright has lived and worked since 1992 as Artistic Director of the American Conservatory Theater.

In this contemporary version Phèdre is no longer Queen of Athens, Theseus’ consort, and Hippolyte is no longer her stepson, but the nameless editor of a newspaper and a young writer whom she hires as reporter. Her energetic exercise of the power imparted to her by her job is eminently apparent in her freedom in using the imperative mood when talking with her subordinates on her actively tootling smartphone and her gusto in peppering her commands with macho obscenities. The young man is a tentative fellow, formerly employed in a Hollywood script department and lacking training and experience in journalism. He is still seeking his way in life. The third character is an older woman, a retired actress, who is the editor’s friend and the young man’s mother. The latter circumstance is revealed between the two women only late in the play, after an accidental peek at the screen of a smartphone. Nobody dies in this play. Hippolyte meets no bloody end. Phèdre doesn’t poison herself. The story, as played in Williamstown, nonetheless holds our interest and evokes some mild sympathy for the characters. In fact, I had a very strange feeling through the performance. A voice deep inside me was telling me to get the hell out of the theater, but I repressed the urge, because I was so absorbed in Nixon and Fuller’s acting and Bonney’s stagecraft. The editor, frustrated in her passion for the young man attempts to harm him professionally in some rather petty ways, and this leads to her demotion. Her carefully planned consummation with her lover turns out to be a flop. The young man moves back to LA, inching along in his path to success or failure. The editor also loses the friendship of the young man’s mother, and the mother loses the proximity of her son. In Ms. Perloff’s view, it seems, tragedy is clearly not for our times. The moral? Before you decide to jump into bed with a subordinate, better check with HR.

Jo Bonney’s sharp, energetic direction gave the performance enough punch and flow to keep the audience in their seats. She clearly likes to encourage actors to express themselves with their entire bodies, the women at least, and that became a welcome part of the show, enthusiastically embraced by Nixon and Fuller. The somewhat ponderous reporter, weighed down by family baggage and his inchoate stage of life, remained heavily on his feet. Penny Fuller’s characterization of an older woman, once active as an artist, now missing her avocation, but directing her creative  energies into teaching, yoga, etc., was the treat of the evening. She brought a great range of color and nuance to a complex character, made so by a compromised, difficult past. Her humor always hit home. The splendid Cynthia Nixon has enormous resources of insight and imagination in creating a character. What she had to work with seemed a bit constructed, a bit of a type, and she didn’t seem entirely comfortable with the boss lady’s mannerisms, above all the bad words, which she emphasized in a way that betrayed the artificiality of the verbal gestures. Chris Lowell was convincing enough in the thankless role of a repressed, unfulfilled young man, who is constantly holding back affection and information from his mother and grudgingly doling out lovemaking to the woman who is infatuated with him. It is hard to imagine how any woman could be attracted to this pathetic little nebbish, unless she had a weakness for the sad puppy dog type.

The following is not intended as a criticism of the play, of which there clearly could be many, but rather as a comment on how we see relationships in our time. I wasn’t convinced that the older woman was really in love with the reporter or that he was in love with her. The affair, which never really got going, seemed more of a project for her and an experiment for him. Or perhaps she felt a desire to add a younger lover to her collection of Good Things, which included a fine house, a fine, tall, prosperous husband, and two fine boys. If there was a dog, I didn’t catch it. A soliloquy in which the editor doubts her feelings and motivations is proleptically delivered as a prologue to the play, and that seems to contain all the love, passion, and obsession around which the story revolves. In their transports the lovers recite to one another lines from Racine’s original, so blandly Englished that one barely recognizes them. (Judging by the reviews of the Paris premiere these quotations were cut back considerably for Williamstown.) Their passion, attraction, dalliance, or whatever it is never has the force to make the characters break out of their professional roles. But in the originals, both Racine’s and Euripides’, they burst out in their full destructive force. Now that’s love for you!

  1. Collection policies apparently did not allow materials to be copied or removed.
  2. I wish to thank Drew Beisswenger, Director of Library Services at Independence Community College, who very kindly and conscientiously checked the Inge Collection for a copy of The Fatal Attraction. There was none, but not all of Inge’s library is in the collection.

About Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

A tip for our readers: How to get the most out of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review for the Arts.
What if I hate reading on computer screens, even tablets?
We get occasional inquiries from readers about whether we plan to launch a print edition of our arts journals. The answer is that we've given it some thought, and we're still thinking about it.
It is not only our older readers who object to reading them online. There are even some millennials who would rather read from paper. One of our readers got the simple idea of using the sites as sophisticated tables of contents. She prints out each article on three-hole paper and files them in a loose-leaf album. I've devoted a lot of time to finding the very best print and pdf facility there is. Just click on one of the icons at the top right of the article and print!
Click here to make your tax-deductible donation to The Arts Press, publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review. Or click on the notice in the sidebar. The Arts Press is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non-profit arts service organization. Contributions for the charitable purposes of The Arts Press must be made payable to“Fractured Atlas” only and are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law.