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Parallel Universe

Lily Tomlin returns after fifteen years with her one-woman, thirteen-character show essentially unchanged; at the Public Theater, Kit Marlowe dies again.

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Lily Tomlin is an accomplished comedienne who has proved her mettle as both actress and monologuist in all performance media. She can embody a plethora of characters in whirlwind succession -- including some men -- changing her voice, manner, agile movement, even her face. In a simple, loose-fitting black outfit, with no visible makeup and minimal scenery, a few light effects by Ken Billington, and nary a prop, she conjures up a world -- not universal but a world.

The problem is Jane Wagner's text for this not very modified revival of The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, her 1985 solo show for Miss Tomlin. Even spectators for whom this is not déjà entendu will find it a mite (the French have a word for everything) passé. There is a trap in the very format: Miss Tomlin switches into too many characters, from a philosophical bag woman communicating with extraterrestrials to a suicidally depressed society lady, for any one of them to come indelibly alive, though the second half of the program does better than the first.

The text shuttles relentlessly between the agglomeration of one-liners and multicharacter skits that happen to be enacted by a single performer. There is no true protagonist like Dame Edna, and no biting social commentator like Jackie Mason. Finally, the humor is not only obsolescent but also a trifle precious: "The only thing more depressing than writing a suicide note is losing the one you've just written," or "He was the only man who ever knew where he was when Sylvia Plath died." But if you love Lily Tomlin, a lot of her will come tumbling out at you.

Historic plays have become a bit of a rarity, which adds interest to David Grimm's Kit Marlowe. Nineteen years ago, we had an abysmal musical called Marlowe, whose absurd memory is rekindled by Grimm's beginning: Young Thomas Walsingham opens the play with an obscenity, and Marlowe swings in on a rope, wearing not so much as Tarzan's G-string, to gambol with his friend.

The few known facts or surmises about Christopher Marlowe (1564-93) -- a shoemaker's son, Cambridge scholar, and dazzling playwright -- are that he was a homosexual; a spy in the service of Thomas's uncle, Sir Francis Walsingham, sent by him to France to unearth a Catholic conspiracy to overthrow Elizabeth I in favor of Mary Stuart; and a dead man from a stab wound in the eye administered by one Ingram Frizer in a tavern brawl over payment of the bill.

Grimm, once past the initial shock effect, spins an intermittently credible tale of the violent life and death of the young genius and hothead, who loosened blank verse into the flexible instrument perfected by his contemporary, Will Shakespeare. The play does not much concern itself with Marlowe the poet and dramatist, but it does invent some spectacular adventures, hairbreadth escapes, and harebrained provocations. It does show Kit Marlowe as a rapt admirer of Sir Walter Raleigh; as scorner of his rival, Essex; and as recalcitrant tool of the spymaster Walsingham, as well as comrade and lover of the latter's nephew, Thomas. It also creates a homoerotic atmosphere: No woman appears, there is much amorous all-male rolling on the floor, Marlowe even dons drag to impersonate Elizabeth, and there are ample puns on such matters as "getting at the bottom of things."

The language, despite periodic slipups, is a jolly amalgam of the Elizabethan and the modern, and there is a fairly believable portrayal of Marlowe's fanatical and amoral superman-worship, centering on Raleigh until Sir Walter disappointed his adulator. There is a less convincing evocation of Marlowe's involvement in the School of Night, Raleigh's circle of atheist friends who amused themselves spelling "God" backward, and of the Mephistophelian Sir Francis playing devil to Kit's Faustus. Grimm's play is more fustian than Faustian, but it does yield some fun amid all the torture, bloodshed, and rodomontade.

A big problem is the casting. Sam Trammell is very fine as the confused Thomas; Martin Rayner, Bostin Christopher, and David Patrick Kelly are spot-on as various rogues; and Robert Sella offers an amusingly outrageous Essex. But then! The usually good Jon DeVries is insufferable as Sir Francis, an admittedly overextended and one-dimensional part, which the actor strips of even that dimension, unable to sound either British or the least bit varied. No better is the grossly miscast Keith David, fine in the right part but without the equipment for the elegant courtier Raleigh, whom he turns into a lesser Martin Luther King, Jr. And Ned Stresen-Reuter, as the Young Actor, has no talent whatever beyond looking good in the nude.

Others are mediocre, not least Christian Camargo, who has some glimmers of Marlowe but is too flimsy to embody the heaven-storming hero and carry the bulk of the play on his frail shoulders. Brian Kulick's direction ranges from the clever to the excessive, but Narelle Sissons' sets, Anita Yavich's costumes, and the rest of the production values are apt, even if Marlowe's famous "mighty line" is not matched by Grimm's wobbly one.

Once long ago, when Brendan Behan was dining and drinking by himself at the Algonquin, a waiter who recognized me and my group approached to inquire whether the lonely Mr. Behan might join our table. We gladly agreed, but all I can recall of that merry evening is Behan dubbing me "the Balkan Metternich," though I regrettably lack the great Austrian Chancellor's diplomatic skills.

The current revival of Behan's saucily rambunctious, irreverently madcap The Hostage at the usually professional Irish Repertory Theatre is stultifyingly inept. Call it Amateur Hour at the Irish equivalent of Podunk. This shaky and messy production, admittedly inhibited by the cramped space, is hard to listen to and unbearable to look at. Yes, the denizens of a 1960 Dublin bordello are meant to be a motley crew, but not such a collection of unsightly freaks flailing about and bellowing with unchecked oafishness. There are a few exceptions: Erik Singer, though too tall for the shorties he plays opposite, is credible and touching as the title character; Barry McNabb (Rio Rita) is at least a deft dancer; and Anto Nolan, a bit toned down, might make a competent Pat.

The rest, however, appall, some of them -- even those not meant to be -- eyesores as well as bunglers, or so exaggeratedly clownish as to kill the jokes. I wish it were otherwise, but here I am forced to play the balking Metternich.

Anne Meara's Down the Garden Paths is a chance for Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson, old hands or hams, to be funnier than their material, and for John Shea to show off his acting skills. But this is a thoroughly artificial, unnecessary piece, although an audience of mostly what the play calls alter kockers seemed to find it hugely hilarious.


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