Haunted Houses

GETTING IT (NEARLY) RIGHT: Amy Irving and Daniel Gerroll in a new translation of Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts.Photo: Dixie Sheridan

Ibsen’s 1881 Ghosts may seem a bit musty today; it helps to recall the times when Mr. Pecksniff and Mrs. Grundy led the forces of righteous indignation against it all over Europe. In 1895, a scant four years after its British premiere, Shaw wrote nostalgically about the ruckus it had provoked, “one crowded moment when … the atmosphere of London was black with vituperation, with threats, with clamor for suppression and extinction, with everything that makes life worth living.” Such life-enhancing furors, stirred up by Ibsen or anyone else, are regrettably rare in our theater. But we can at least derive from this ancient battleground the same sort of thrill as from a visit to Gettysburg.

How discreetly understated it all is! Today’s inattentive spectator might not even recognize the use of syphilis as a spearhead for attacking the bourgeois proprieties and largely hypocritical religious straitjacketing as poisoners of life. Yet what a powerful work inspired by the spirochete, without its ever being named in the play. Even so, Ghosts had to endure long interdicts in the countries in which it was eventually to prevail.

The Classic Stage Company’s mounting uses Lanford Wilson’s idiomatic and pungent translation but otherwise has little merit. We miss the oppressively ponderous furniture to convey the stiflingly bourgeois atmosphere. Christine Jones’s set consists of a green wall and floor with a few sticks of spindly furnishings and one square window that sometimes gives on rain, sometimes on the dining room. Neither the mountain peaks, nor the orphanage fire, nor yet the final mocking sunshine, is properly conveyed, and when Scott Zielinski’s lighting goes for huge, ominous shadows, the effect is bathetic.

Daniel Fish, the director, must have demanded “modern” acting: Much dialogue is delivered casually or sotto voce, if not, as in the case of Ted Schneider’s Oswald, in a breakneck sprint. Stage movement is often constrained or contrived, and the acting, striving to be contemporary, lacks the period style for which American actors are, in any case, untrained.

Daniel Gerroll’s Pastor Manders comes closest to getting it right; the usually delightful Amy Irving is an awkward Mrs. Alving, even what seems to be an unruly blonde wig sabotaging her natural loveliness. David Patrick Kelly is an obviously slimy Engstrand; as Regina, Lisa DeMont curtsies well but rather too often.

Ever since the fine Mad Forest, Caryl Churchill’s plays have become madder and madder. Her current Far Away carries the non sequitur to new heights. This 60-minute farrago, which may induce you to watch your watch more than the stage, consists of three scenes that call themselves acts, between which, it seems, years elapse. In the first, a little girl, Joan, sleepless in the wee hours, tells her likewise waking Aunt Harper, with whom she is staying, about unmentionable acts performed by her uncle. He is just outside, beating a newly arrived truckload of adults and children bloody, then herding them into the shed for further bloodshed. This still preserves a semblance of reality as, say, Harold Pinter might conceive it. In Act Two, a grown-up Joan and Todd, a young man, toil in a hat factory, outstripping each other in outlandishly towering creations that would make Isaac Mizrahi blush. These hats, we soon see, are to humiliate a parade of chained prisoners wearing them to execution.

In the all-stops-out third act, the aunt and the male modiste discourse about a world in which nations, animals, plants, and objects wage fathomless war in absurd alliances and incomprehensible enmity. Joan, now Todd’s wife, has escaped (from whom?) for a day, and reports that “rats are bleeding out of their mouths and ears, which is good, and so were the girls by the side of the road … there were piles of bodies … one killed by coffee or one killed by pins, they were killed by heroin, petrol, chain saws, hairspray, foxgloves,” not forgetting “thousands dead of light in Madagascar.” Joan was afraid to cross a river, not so much because of “a camp of Chilean soldiers upstream” and “fourteen black-and-white cows downstream” as because of doubts about “whose side the river was on.”

The play is against brutality, totalitarianism, and war, good fights except when, as here, directed as much at the audience. Some people may be lured to Far Away by Frances McDormand as Aunt Harper. She has, however, like the others, little to do, save for some even more cockamamie business devised by Stephen Daldry, the dependably offensive director.

A. R. Gurney’s The Fourth Wall, which has been kicking around for a decade, arrives, slightly refurbished, at New York’s Primary Stages, still unready for prime time. Fatuous and smug, it would not do credit to a futilely stagestruck college sophomore.

Peggy, a middle-aged housewife, has arranged the overstuffed living-room furniture to face an utterly blank fourth wall – i.e., the audience. She believes that beyond it are vital people to be broken through to. She also believes that someone is threatening her life, and that she must go to Washington to straighten out George W. Her indulgent husband, Roger, though a businessman, knows all about theater, as does Peggy’s visiting New York friend, the supersophisticated Julia, who decides that the room is really a stage set, whereupon all – later including Floyd, a gay drama teacher at the local college – lapse into endless repetitions of stage lingo and behavior. Fantasy is fine, but not when hopelessly labored, hand-me-down, and, except to pushovers, unfunny.

Gurney’s last-ditch invention falls back on a player piano that unsolicitedly bursts into Cole Porter numbers, which anywhere from one to all four cast members proceed lustily to perform. Another desperation tactic of this monstrously attenuated skit is the facile and gratuitous anti-Bush gibes, which get from a quasi-Pavlovianly programmed audience an orgasmic response. As Julia, Susan Sullivan gives at least a performance (an amusing Lauren Bacall takeoff); Charles Kimbrough (Roger) resorts to shtick, and David Pittu (Floyd) to camp, no doubt encouraged by David Saint’s complacent direction. Sandy Duncan (Peggy) is at sea in an essentially nonmusical role.

It may be of piquant interest that The Fourth Wall uses the conceit of a parallel between the heroine and Shaw’s Saint Joan, a device currently put to infinitely better use in Lanford Wilson’s Book of Days. As for the nauseatingly overworked metaphor of theater for life and vice versa, this was long ago exploited, much more subtly and tellingly, in Molnár’s The Play’s the Thing, in which Gurney’s nose could perhaps profitably be rubbed.

Revival of the Ibsen play; staged by Daniel Fish; starring Amy Irving and Daniel Gerroll.
Far Away
By Caryl Churchill; directed by Stephen Daldry; starring Frances McDormand.
The Fourth Wall
By A. R. Gurney; starring Sandy Duncan.

Haunted Houses