Imagine a play in which every line either sounds like a quotation (bad enough), is a quotation (worse), or is one character quoting another (worse yet). And even the lines that merely sound like quotations are also in a way quotations, for David Hirson, the author of Wrong Mountain, is so enamored of himself that you can practically see invisible quotation marks bedecking his every utterance.
The play – sorry, the chrestomathy – concerns Henry Dennett, an elitist poet, at outs with his family, which includes an ex-wife about to marry a popular playwright; and a son, Adam, and a daughter, Jessica, who resent their soon-to-be-stepfather in tandem. On a bet, he writes a play that is produced by an outlandishly campy festival director, Maurice Montesor, and features a rather curious set of actors. There are also two other playwrights – a flighty woman, and a serious youth, Clifford – competing with Henry for the festival prize. This takes place in a bizarre location, where a kitschy goddess presides over a fountain with peculiar water.
Henry is being treated by a Broadway-besotted doctor for a huge worm that torments his insides, and there is a framing image of two moonlit snowcapped mountains. One of them is presumably the right one to climb, the other, the wrong one; unless, as we’re told, all mountains are right, or all of them wrong. There is name-dropping second only to the quotation-dropping, also expressionist elements, surreal elements, pastiche, and even a miniature train that chugs across the stage from left to right and, later, from right to left – or, perhaps, to wrong. There is distorted Grieg music blaring in the background, along with lots of symbolism in the foreground.
And mountains of verbiage. Hirson’s debut was with a pretentious play in rhyming couplets, La Bête, but Wrong Mountain proves that he can be just as pretentious in prose, which ranges from the convoluted to the Gongoristic, with always a lip-smacking undertone, as you sense Hirson sucking on his polysyllables as if they were Jujubes. There is some respite here and there, when he relaxes a little, manages to get off a funny one, or allows a character to sound fleetingly human. But he promptly repents, regresses into the recondite, this time perhaps with a Latin quotation.
Unfortunately, Richard Jones, who also directed La Bête, does not palliate any of the excesses but, on the contrary, plays clankingly into them. Thus he allows Daniel Davis, a not-untalented actor, to camp up Maurice to the point of constantly threatening to turn into a balloon and float off the stage, and encourages the good Ron Rifkin, as Henry, to rant even more grandiosely than Alceste and a Thomas Kyd character rolled together. It is to Rifkin’s credit that he manages to breathe some humanity into the rant.
Daniel Jenkins is likable as Clifford; Tom Riis Farrell, funny as the doctor; Bruce Norris has a nice quality as Adam; and when she stops pouting, Anne Dudek is effective as a young actress as unimpressed by Henry’s play as by his hungry “old-man lips.” The only truly horrible performance comes from Ilana Levine, a simpering actress you want to yank off the boards. Giles Cadle’s scenery is ineffably vulgar.
The main problem, though, is the dreadful show-offiness of Hirson’s endless polemics about art. He wallows in his erudition like a mud wrestler in his mud but without even the wrestler’s innocence, only his swinishness. At 41, other playwrights have acted grown-up; if Hirson does not start shedding his ostentatiously bookwormish adolescence, he may end up swallowed by a library.