Off Shaw

Star Quality: Miriam Shor and Matthew Rauch in Wilson's play-within-the-play.Photo: Rahav Segev/

Lanford Wilson’s Book of Days was good when I reviewed it some years ago at Hartford Stage, and it is just as good now, in a New York mounting belated for no other reason than that a cast of twelve, even with a simple unit set, nowadays seems prohibitive. If you did not care for Burn This, the previous item in Signature Theatre’s Wilson series, don’t let that stop you from catching this newer, better play.

Two things of note are happening in Dublin, a modest Missouri town. One is a not universally welcomed production of Shaw’s Saint Joan at the local little theater, staged by a hotshot guest director, Boyd Middleton, whom a sexual and an income-tax cloud over his head have brought to this backwater. The other is the suspicious but generally unsuspected demise of Walter Bates, local cheese-maker and richest of Dubliners.

Ruth Hoch, who agonizes over playing Joan, is Bates’s bookkeeper; her husband, Len, runs the Bates plant and tries doggedly to introduce novel ideas into cheese production. At least Walt is faithful to his middle-aged, still-lovely but neglected wife, Sharon – unlike his tyro lawyer and feckless playboy son James, who cheats on his hapless wife. Len’s mother, Martha, dean of the Christian junior college in a neighboring town, has come a long way from her hippie past but retains an independent mind and sharp tongue unusual in academia. There is also the sexy Ginger Reed, who assists Boyd at work and in bed. Further, the smoothly hypocritical Reverend Bobby Groves, the muddled sheriff Conroy Atkins, and the somewhat uncouth factory foreman Earl Hill.

By having these basically realistic characters be not only themselves but also members of a fluid and flexible commenting chorus, Wilson adds theatricality to the proceedings. Admirably, Wilson never repeats himself, and his Pirandellian playfulness and Brechtian distancing, new for him, effectively convey the two-way traffic between art and life. This is reinforced by the transformation of Ruth, the Joan of the Shaw play, into a present-day Joan, as she becomes the solitary searcher into Walt’s death, defying a hostile community that opposes her striving for truth and justice.

Courage and intelligence bring separate and shared miseries to Ruth and Len; and while a lesser evildoer is brought to justice (though no thanks to the law), the supreme villain thrives both economically and politically. Wilson sees the world clearly and represents it without grudge-bearing or edulcoration, and keeps the play moving forward with unflagging vivacity in plot and subplots alike. Along the way, he also exhibits his exemplary insight into whatever profession he writes about – in this case, cheese-making. No playwright is truer at conveying the work people do.

In the fine cast, only Nancy Snyder slightly overplays Sharon. I must single out, as first among equals, the tormented Ruth of Miriam Shor, the misunderstood Len of Matthew Rauch, and Sally Kellermann’s priceless raisonneuse of a Martha. Marshall W. Mason has directed with his customary savvy, ably supported by John Lee Beatty (set), Laura Crow (costumes), and Dennis Parichy (lights), who by the simplest means produces a terrifying tornado.

What is one to call Dael Orlandersmith? The Princess of Pleonasm? The Royal of Redundancy? Or simply a teller of tautologies? Her inconsiderately intermissionless exercise in self-pity, Yellowman, teases what might have passed as a fifteen-minute monologue or five-page short story into a 105-minute anti-theatrical piece of bludgeoning repetition. Even the author’s invented name is redundant; surely either Orlander or Smith would have sufficed.

In the two-hander, Orlandersmith portrays Alma, an overweight, medium-dark young woman, while Howard W. Overshown plays Eugene, a high-yellow young man in love with her. Alma’s problems are her weight and her mother’s slatternliness; Eugene’s problem is the jeering of his dark-skinned father, who bitingly resents his son’s much lighter skin color.

The locale is South Carolina, where the creole called Geechee or Gullah is spoken, which Orlandersmith prefers to call – redundantly – Gullah/Geechee. Both characters are enmeshed in the intense class-consciousness, based on skin color, of the region’s black inhabitants. Light is good and dark is bad, a set of strife-provoking values apparently self-inflicted, at least as far as we can tell from Yellowman, where trouble stems not from whites, who do not figure in the proceedings. Except, of course, as an audience for this monotonous and, in my view, unresonant piece of theatrical taffy. Hardly a statement goes unrepeated three or four times, which is at least three times too many.

Orlandersmith is perfectly cast as Alma, a role that fits her down to her painfully overexplicit, faintly stilted delivery, which helps stretch the material further. As Eugene, Overshown is more natural and credible; don’t blame him if he cannot make Eugene’s inexplicable passion for Alma believable. Blanka Zizka, the director, and Klara Zieglerova, her set designer, have labored Sisypheanly to add variety and drama, but turning alfalfa into asparagus requires more than dramaturgy – it requires thaumaturgy. The lighting of Russell H. Champa faithfully reflects the author’s inflationary technique: He uses some hundred lights where half that would have done as well. Amazingly, Elliott Sharp’s contribution is labeled “original music”; I thought it was a stagehand pulling on the tails of an array of different-size cats.

What’s more contemptible than a clean dirty joke, especially when inflated into a full-length musical? However lowdown a true dirty joke may be, it has at least the courage of its convictions and an appeal to the atavistic in human nature. But to whom does a laundered risqué joke appeal, one that pretends to be naughty while smarmily neutralizing its spice? It dishonestly cashes in on cravenness and hypocrisy.

Such a piece of trash is Debbie Does Dallas, a jejune, witless travesty of a well-known porn movie, and an even worse travesty of musical comedy. Conceived by Susan L. Schwartz, composed by Andrew Sherman with assists from Tom Kitt and Jonathan Callicutt, and adapted and directed by Erica Schmidt, this gutless wonder merits only a swift kick in the rear to sweep it off the boards. That the cast can do little with it goes without saying, although its only member with a name, the coldly artificial Sherie Rene Scott, may well lose it herewith. All involved, including the feeble designers, should take their well-deserved lumps.

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Book of Days
By Lanford Wilson; staged by Marshall W. Mason.
By Dael Orlandersmith; staged by Blanka Zizka.
Debbie Does Dallas
New musical based on the porno film.

Off Shaw