Places in the Heart

Dueling wits: Valhalla's Peter Frechette and Samantha Soule.Photo: Joan Marcus

Pauline Kael once consigned a dismal Italian film, Patroni Griffi’s Il Mare, to more appropriate showing in gay bars. It would, however, take a fairly desperate gay bar to embrace Paul Rudnick’s Valhalla, which consists of some 60 one-liners in search of a play that never materializes. Worse yet, of these 60 some are only mildly funny, not to mention a whole other lot that simply goes splat.

The bizarre idea was to tell parallelly the stories of mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria and James Avery, a youth in thirties and forties Dainsville, Texas. Both grow up gay, but with differences. James is beloved of Sally Mortimer, who is torn between him and the jock Henry Lee Stafford, whom she will eventually lovelessly marry. Henry Lee is torn between Sally and James, who seduces him when they are both 12. After many failed attempts to marry, the mother-dominated and Wagner-besotted Ludwig finally settles on humpbacked Princess Sophie, who loves Wagner almost as much as he does.

In World War II, James and Henry Lee, together in the service, are parachuted into Bavaria on a spying mission. They make love in the golden bed of Ludwig’s storybook castle, Valhalla, but Henry Lee gets shot by a Nazi soldier. In the ending—outside Valhalla or in limbo—Ludwig, James, and Annie, who is either James’s or Henry Lee’s daughter, are united staring at the golden reliquary that held Ludwig’s heart but now contains a glass swan that James pilfered at play’s start. As music from Lohengrin pours out deafeningly, James and Ludwig contentedly gaze at Annie, who rapturously lofts the glass swan.

This précis doesn’t begin to tell you what all goes on in the furibund play, for which you ought to be thankful. The cast, headed by Peter Frechette (Ludwig, and good) and Sean Dugan (James, and not so good) is proficient: Scott Barrow, Candy Buckley, Samantha Soule, and Jack Willis play a batch of parts each with brazen aplomb. The costumes by William Ivey Long and lighting by Kenneth Posner lend opulence. Christopher Ashley has directed no better or worse than Valhalla deserves.

The play of parallel monologues, wherein characters never address one another, was pioneered by Brian Friel, who dazzled with The Faith Healer and Molly Sweeney. Other Irish playwrights have latched on to it with mixed results, notably Conor McPherson, and now Eugene O’Brien with Eden. Counterproductive as it seems for drama to jettison its mainstay, dialogue, the device allows the staging of the characters’ interior monologues, of their thoughts; allows them to tell the story from their own divergent points of view, and the audience to pick whom to agree with.

Eden, though a decent piece of work, is also a bit thin. Middle-aged Billy no longer sleeps with his wife, Breda, but chases after a young woman he fantasizes about, for which he will be duly punished. Breda, conversely, has made every effort to recapture him sexually, improving her wardrobe and appearance, and shedding considerable weight. She fails with Billy, but has a Pyrrhic victory with someone else.

O’Brien tells this oft-told tale with a good eye and ear for detail, but sounds no new depths, achieves no new heights. As the somewhat underimagined Billy, Ciarán O’Reilly has just the right good looks beginning to go to seed—or, more precisely, flab—and manages to make the callow character pitiful as well. Catherine Byrne searingly conveys the touching hopefulness and humiliating defeat of Breda, a part that is a veritable lure for overacting and sentimentality, without a trace of either. Instead, her dry intensity in hope and pared-down befuddlement in failure earn, by not soliciting our sympathy, our unstinting empathy. On the sparest of sets by Klara Zieglerova, with subtly varied lighting by Howell Binkley and intelligently restrained direction from John Tillinger, Eden makes its modest but valid impact.

Whatever the beauties of Aeschylus and Sophocles for their contemporaries and our Greek scholars may be, their plays are scarcely viable in the modern theater. Euripides, freethinker and psychologist, is still possible. Since, moreover, Greek dramatists worked in trilogies, of which the Oresteia of Aeschylus is the only fully surviving one, it is particularly misguided to present its first installment, Agamemnon, by itself. The trilogy traces the progression from self-perpetuating vendetta to conciliatory justice, divine and human; to end with Agamemnon is seeing the first act of a three-act play. It is to place Ate (strife) over Dike (justice), and to abort sophrosyne (moderation).

Peter Meineck of the Aquila Theatre Company has translated the play tolerably, though with some blemishes. At times too fancy, as when the watchman has been crouching “like some dog,” where “a dog” would be idiomatic, he is, at others, too “modern.” Thus in Clytemnestra’s “megalomania,” which Robert Fagles renders aptly as “mad with ambition,” or in Cassandra as Agamemnon’s “prostitute,” where George Thompson’s “paramour” is correct. Sometimes he is unclear, as when the Furies “spit in disgust on the bed of a brother, / they hate the defiler,” where Fagles’s “showering curses / on the man who tramples on his brother’s bed” is perspicuous.

Meineck and his co-director, Robert Richmond, have cut much and omitted all references to Greek gods, substituting “God” and “angel.” They have modernized the dress of Agamemnon and the male chorus, while the women wear quasi-period costumes. The chorus is written as old men, impotent to act; of its seven members here, most are patently young, and leap about like goats. In distinct contrast to Greek practice, Iphigenia’s slaughter is shown—worse yet, in pantomime that falls flat. In a play where powerful vocalization must carry most of the drama, the mundane, undernourished voice of Olympia Dukakis, the Clytemnestra, is as void of grandeur as the rest of her characterization. Louis Zorich’s Agamemnon has bluster without true imperiousness. Worst is the Cassandra of Miriam Laube, who shuttles between paralysis and tremor, has neither dignity nor pathos, and is physically anything but a king’s prize. Even the richly embroidered crimson tapestry on which Agamemnon sacrilegiously treads is at best suitable for cutting up into dishcloths. Minimal scenery without inventiveness by Meineck and Richmond, routine lighting by Meineck, and blatant music by Anthony Cochrane do not help. The “authentic 1940s Army jeep” that serves as the royal chariot is the one thing that is—in its way—authentic.

Places in the Heart