War Was Hell

Good-bye to All That: The cast of Fifth of July as onetime radicals in a post-Vietnam world.Photo: Rahav Segev

Those who, like me, loved lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July in 1978, when it was titled 5th of July, get several surprises from its revival—some pleasant, some not. The play centers on four friends, free spirits at Berkeley during the radical late sixties, who reunite on the Talley farm in Missouri a decade later. Ken and June, the Talley siblings, have become near-cynical quasi-failures; the Landis couple, John and Gwen, are now go-getters with a soft core. Aunt Sally embodies the bittersweet tergiversations of an older generation; 14-year-old Shirley, June’s daughter, the self-dramatizing of a postmodern younger one.

The funny-sad play spoke volumes to its uneasily transitional times as 5th; as Fifth, it now looks like a period piece somewhat forlornly meandering between faded relevance and the promise of future classic status. That Jo Bonney, the director, had problems with its rhythms and cast may or may not prevent a sympathetic audience from gleaning some laughs and lessons from it.

As Ken Talley Jr., a failed pacifist who lost both legs in Vietnam and who cannot resign himself to teaching school in his native backwater, William Hurt gave one of his best performances in ’78; in 2003, the usually able Robert Sean Leonard is rather too coldly detached. As his young botanist lover (radiantly played in 5th by Jeff Daniels), Michael Gladis is as technically inept as physically unprepossessing. As the opportunistic John Landis, David Harbour is better than Jonathan Hogan was in ’78, and as June, Jessalyn Gilsig is more appealing than Joyce Reehling was back then. Though less hippifiedly scruffy than Danton Stone in 5th, Ebon Moss-Bachrach has an interesting take on the guitar-strumming, odd-book-reading composer, Wes.

Pamela Payton-Wright, as the once-rebellious Sally, can’t hold a candle to her predecessor, Helen Stenborg, and, though much farther in age from Shirley than the incumbent Sarah Lord, Amy Wright was infinitely more charming. As Gwen, Nancy Snyder was just right back then, but though Parker Posey is a step or two over the top, she is sexy and funny enough for die-hard Poseyites (count me among them) to enjoy her incipient Tallulah Bankhead–ism. A trifle prematurely revived, the play must be consumed warily; still, on shaky footing like its prosthesized protagonist, it hobbles on defiantly. I chortled at one David Lindsay-Abaire play and choked on another; his rather precious comedies tread the high wire between daredevil stunt and fatal fall. Kimberly Akimbo—the very title is forcedly farcical—is about progeria, an illness that turns kids into oldsters with foreshortened life expectancy. Such a subject calls for genius; offbeat whimsy will not suffice. And does it ever not suffice here. I will not bore you with a summary of this tale of a dysfunctional family—alcoholic father, accident-prone mother, lawless lesbian aunt, and dreadfully old young daughter with only one schoolmate for a friend, and he an unloved son and compulsive anagrammatist.

A funny line or so occasionally surfaces in the rambling dialogue, as a precociously wizened author longwindedly grinds out flatfooted humor as laboriously as a hundred monkeys toiling to write Hamlet. Lindsay-Abaire’s favorite actress, Marylouise Burke, 62, plays the 16-year-old crone with grim determination but evaporating credibility; Jodie Markell does not make us care for the mother with bandaged hands and leg brace; Ana Gasteyer is gratingly one-note as the Sapphic aunt. As the callow anagrammatist, John Gallagher (Jr.), for whom hell-hag jargon is an abairant anagram, does what he can; only Jake Weber actually squeezes some amusement out of the father.

David Petrarca’s direction, Robert Brill’s décor, Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes, and Brian MacDevitt’s lighting are far more than the play deserves. The declining author of the better Fuddy Meers deserves only banishment to muddy reefs.

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Fifth of July
Revival of the Lanford Wilson play, staged by Jo Bonney.

Kimberly Akimbo
By David Lindsay-Abaire, staged by David Petrarca.

War Was Hell