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Truth to Tell

Rebecca Gilman has an unerring ear for the ways mismatched people relate, an open heart for the ways they louse things up.

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Raw vulnerability: Steve Key and Colleen Werthmann in Gilman's Blue Surge.  

Rebecca Gilman's Blue Surge is simplicity itself. A play about two midwestern cops who get involved with a couple of massage-parlor girls, both the men and the women very different from each other. One cop, Curt, has an affluent girlfriend, Beth, an art historian, who surprises him one morning in his kitchen with Sandy. She is the very young masseuse-prostitute whom he almost busted and now feels oddly, platonically drawn to. His colleague, Doug, a more carefree fellow, starts a relationship with Heather, Sandy's co-worker, whom Doug did bust. Strange, but not so very strange, things ensue.

The language, too, is utterly simple. There are no poetic speeches; nothing is said that couldn't have been spoken by these very people. What is so devastating is the truthfulness of it, the overwhelming lifelikeness of the characters; you cannot help wondering how a young woman playwright could infiltrate them to their very essence. No sentimentality anywhere, no condescension, partiality, or idealization, certainly no lip-smacking. Imperceptibly, the play penetrates you, moves you to share the author's compassion.

What impresses me about Gilman's plays is their ability to bring to life characters from the most diverse backgrounds, of disparate social strata and occupations -- a talent Gilman shares with only one other living American playwright, Lanford Wilson. Whether through research or incisive imagination, she is a guide into worlds we might not have known so well -- or at all -- without that gift of hers, which is a gift to all of us.

She is fortunate also in her director, Robert Falls, whose staging, on Walt Spangler's adroit scenery, is a model of unfussy efficiency, and in a dream cast. As Sandy, Rachel Miner has just the right driven quality, the makeshift toughness awkwardly hiding raw vulnerability. But she is not the whore with a heart of gold -- only an ordinary, battered human heart. Miner is spot-on, down to her brittle smile and overeager voice. Joe Murphy's Curt is, like Sandy, the product of a wretched childhood; like her, he nurses an inner wound; like her, he harbors a beleaguered, groping decency. Murphy's is an equally compelling performance. Amy Landecker is perfect as a confused rich girl emotionally slumming without knowing it. Steve Key (Doug) and Colleen Werthmann (Heather) handle the secondary couple with prime relish.

Blue Surge never cheats and yet manages to surprise as it unfolds with increasing intensity. The climax is suasive, shatteringly beautiful, and absolutely right.

Much ink has been expended on the difference between humor and wit. Onstage, I'd say, wit is when the characters are smarter than we are; humor, when they are dumber. In Paul Osborn's 1939 Morning's at Seven, the nine characters range from naïve to benighted, and a large part of the audience appeal lies in the amused superiority the spectators can feel for the befuddled creatures. This is not to minimize Osborn's canniness in contriving these homespun eccentrics who animate two adjoining midwestern backyards with their wistfully comic thrashings. But I fancy backyard comedy no more than kitchen-sink drama.

Outbidding Chekhov, Osborn gives us four aging sisters, three with troubled spouses (one of these with a 40-year-old son who cannot bring himself to marry his dim fiancée of twelve years) and one of them defiantly single. There is insistent humor here and equally determined pathos, the tribulations artfully managed. It would have helped, though, if Daniel Sullivan, the otherwise savvy director, had not overstated the foolishness of the younger characters. But there is no resisting this clever cast of veteran actors, among whom Frances Sternhagen, Elizabeth Franz, and William Biff McGuire are particularly persuasive. Pleasant to watch, too, is John Lee Beatty's unsurpassable set.

But whereas Osborn's Midwesterners merely make you wallow in benignity, Gilman's ask you to laugh, suffer, and think with them as they navigate a reef-concealing reality. Though striking me as a far better playwright than Suzan-Lori Parks, Gilman gets steadily poorer reviews in the Times and is edged out for the Pulitzer. Yet a play that comes closer to being universal ought to be given an equal chance -- even if it does not appeal to political correctness, and is not apotheosized in the Times.

Blue Surge
New York Shakespeare Festival presentation of a new play by Rebecca Gilman, staged by Robert Falls.
Morning's at Seven
Lincoln Center Theater revival of the play by Paul Osborn, staged by Daniel Sullivan.


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