Monday, April 28, 2008

More Travel Writing

Embedded early in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises is one of my favorite disclaimers in literature:

Then there was another thing. He [Robert Cohn] had been reading W. H. Hudson. That sounds like an innocent occupation, but Cohn had read and reread "The Purple Land." "The Purple Land" is a very sinister book if read too late in life. It recounts splendid imaginary amorous adventures of a perfect English gentleman in an intensely romantic land, the scenery of which is very well described. For a man to take it at thirty-four as a guide-book to what life holds is about as safe as it would be for a man of the same age to enter Wall Street direct from a French convent, equipped with a complete set of the more practical Alger books.

(Incidentally, not everyone recognizes the serious literary aspirations evinced by this meta-fictional gesture, or by the irony of the comma-less descriptors "splendid imaginary amorous." For them, Hemingway will always be about bulls and boats.)

I first had Hemingway administered to me by a simian hiking companion in Pennsylvania; he read to us from the last third of The Sun Also Rises--from Jake's and Bill's and Cohn's and Mike's and Brett's not-so-splendid quasi-amorous sort-of-imaginary adventures in Pamplona. I had never known that inebriation could be so literary.

But the part of TSAR that I return to most often now is Jake and Bill's fishing trip to the Irati River:

The road came out from the shadow of the woods into the hot sun. Ahead was the river-valley. Beyond the river was a steep hill. There was a field of buckwheat on the hill. We saw a white house under some trees on the hillside. It was very hot and we stopped under some trees beside a dam that crossed the river.

The land here is at once an empty page and a restorative balm; it is the only geography fit for the realization of a certain kind of relationship. Evoking both Don Quixote (see again the passage about the purple land) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Hemingway honors and undermines literary and military traditions of male camaraderie. (The entire section, which is not delineated by chapter headings, is about thirty pages.) Jake and Bill walk to river, fish, drink, make mock toasts, read, nap, and walk home. In the evenings they play three-handed bridge with an Englishman named Harris. It really is a lovely idyll between long descriptions of frenzied misunderstanding, manipulation, rupture, and release.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Paris By Night Preview

I saw the open dress rehearsal of Trinity Rep's Paris By Night Friday evening. It's unwise and unfair to comment on a dress rehearsal--I've heard since then that the writer and the cast have collaborated on nearly twenty minutes of cuts, including at least one entire first-act song--but I don't think it's imprudent to say that the show is immensely enjoyable. I'll post a review when I see a more-finished version.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The poetry of motion

"Rat, who was in the stern of the boat while Mole sculled, sat up suddenly and listened with a passionate intentness. Mole, who with gentle strokes was just keeping the boat moving while he scanned the banks with care, looked at him with curiosity.

'It's gone!' sighed the Rat, sinking back in his seat again. 'So beautiful and strange and new! Since it was to end so soon I almost wish I had never heard it. For it has roused a longing in me that is pain, and nothing seems worth while but just to hear that sound once more and go on listening to it forever. No! There it is again!' he cried, alert once more. Entranced, he was silent for a long space, spellbound.

'Now it passes on and I begin to lose it,' he said presently. 'O, Mole! the beauty of it! The merry bubble and joy, the thin, clear, happy call of the distant piping. Such music I never dreamed of, and the call in it is stronger even than the music is sweet! Row on, Mole, row! For the music and the call must be for us.'"

I came across TWitW as a senior in high school and made it a vernal ritual for the next four years. If there is a better articulation of the call of the unknown--the voice from around the bend in the road--I haven't read it.

The heady pastoralism of The Wind in the Willows does not make for gripping reading, and you don't find abstractions like "the music and the call" in contemporary young adult fiction. Wizardry is okay; mysticism is not. Maybe the distinction is between action and awe--between acting and being acted on. There's plenty of action in TWitW but the most important--the awakening of Mole's dormant liveliness--is subcutaneous.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

a lovely word and one that probably means heaven

Do you remember when you were in high school and spring came and the flowers bloomed with an impossible flamboyance and you sat in the back of the library, your body as sensitive and symbolic as the palm of a hand, and, when you were supposed to be drafting an essay for Expository Writing due in thirty minutes, you were instead reading these words--

I first met Dean not long after my wife and I had split up--

and when you got to these words--

I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty, the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty--

you went right back to those first words again and went all the way through, and then later, you were reading those same words, all of them, and they meant nothing, as though they were instructions for a gadget you'd never owned?

The copy of On the Road I read four times my junior year of high school was singularly anodyne: pink, white, and cerulean-striped, like a faded French flag (and with the same ideals, no less). But it had a laminated cover and prairie-sized margins; it was a book for reading. The copy I got later, after I had already out-grown the book, was the Penguin Beat Classics version (introduction by Ann Charters) with Kerouac and Neal Cassady grinning and boyish and a little in love on the cover. Although I hated the paper and the font and the margins, I knew the cover was just right; this love is why boys read On the Road.

The copy I have now is borrowed. It's a small Signet paperback, a "back-pocket" book. The title is hand-written, the dangerous teaser--The riotous odyssey of two American drop-outs, by the drop-out who started it all...--sloppily scrawled beneath. CraZy! The illustration is childishly flat and reductive. A heterosexual couple kneels barefoot on the hood of a flat-tired convertible, a jug of wine perilously close to the edge of the car. The lovers' faces are lost in her hair, their pelvises flush against each other. Strangely, or conveniently, the girl's long hair is the same yellow as the rest of the book's cover; but so are her (and his) feet, his arms, and the part of his neck we can see around her grip. If we imagine them making out, then the whole thing can only be considered kitsch; but it we think of them desperately, greedily, holding onto each other--not kissing but praying; each is the other's saint--the picture makes a little more sense.

I still can't do more than skim it; there's a lot of boring stuff in On the Road that my adolescent porousness didn't strain out. But it's been fun skimming, nevertheless.

Anyway, it's spring: time to head out somewhere. I don't know if it's true that the ice cream gets creamier and the pie slices get bigger as you head west on 70. When I did it all I discovered is that the nights do get lonelier and the dawns do come slower. In the spirit of adventure--the real young man's fancy, before even love--I'll be revisiting my favorite travel books this month.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Film Review: The Counterfeiters (Die Fälscher)

From 1942 until the end of World War II, the German government, hoping to destabilize the Allies’ economies, engineered the largest counterfeiting operation in the world. Using Jewish artisans culled from the prisoners of Sachsenhausen and Auschwitz, Operation Bernhard produced over £134 million during its three-year existence and was beginning to generate American dollars when imminent Allied victory forced its relocation from Sachsenhausen to Mauthausen-Gusen, effectively halting production. Details of the scheme were revealed in the memoirs of Adolf Burger, a Slovakian printer who was discovered in 1942 printing forged baptismal certificates for Jews, interned, and enlisted among the counterfeiters. He is still alive and was shown every draft of the script for The Counterfeiters (Die Fälscher, at the Avon through Thursday), the Austrian movie based on his story. I have not read the memoirs—I’m not sure that they have been translated into English—so I don’t know how lively they are, or how honest their sentiments; but the film has a fugitive’s avidity, as if unsure of its right to be where it is and to do what it’s doing. This, certainly, is the feeling of the counterfeiters themselves, who have been rescued from hard labor and gas chambers so that they can work in professional comfort while producing the financial means for eventual German victory, and it seems to have infiltrated the ranks of the filmmakers. Perhaps they are aware that a movie about counterfeit—something that looks enough like the real thing to pass for it—risks becoming counterfeit, or exposing its own tricks through its subject. And so The Counterfeiters is full of distractions—an insistent, ironic soundtrack; a jittery, jumpy camera; and three unfinished plots crammed into less than one hundred minutes—meant to keep us from observing its fakery.

Director Stefan Ruzowitzky seems unable to decide what story to tell; we learn a little about prewar Berlin’s master counterfeiter Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics, playing a composite based on Salomon Smolianoff), a little about the mechanics of Operation Bernhard, and a little about the question of how to endure persecution: is it better to resist oppression and risk death, or to acquiesce to its demands and, perhaps, survive? Burger, we understand, is committed to resistance and to his own martyrdom: his world is an expression of principles, without which it is an uninhabitable void. Sorowitsch, whose solipsism and cynicism appear modeled on Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine (even if he looks more like a banged-up Bing Crosby), is a member of Berlin’s sensual, sophisticated class; for him, principles are a matter of practicality and utility: existence precedes essence. When they are thrown together as counterfeiters, their philosophies conflict. Burger wants to sabotage the project, and thus the Nazi enterprise, by producing flawed etchings of the dollar, while Sorowitsch simply wants to survive—survival being the only triumph that matters. The Counterfeiters is about making money but it is also about selling out: what does it profit a man to gain the world but lose his soul? Well, he gains the world.

But Ruzowitzky, his script and camera tightly trained on Sorowitsch and Burger, fails to envision the world that Fascists would make and Sorowitsch, should he survive, would gain. Indeed, the violent reality of Nazi rule that intrudes on the counterfeiters’ cloistered life is too abstracted for us to sympathize with Burger’s position; although we glimpse the camp's brutality, we remember Berlin’s nightlife from the film’s early scenes and believe that beyond the gray skies and barbed wire of the concentration camp those parties are still pulsing, or are at least only in remission. The incessant soundtrack—all tango, all the time—reinforces this misapprehension; only in rare moments of silence do we tremble.

In a word, the film is too particularized. Benedict Neuenfels’s camera is an agitated, anxious narrator: it translates personal terror but forfeits any claims to objectivity and moral authority. The existential menace of Fascism is reduced to the personal threat of capricious and barbaric camp guards—and no, no one is prepared to die just to spite his boss. But this isn’t the point. A wider lens and a steadier eye might be able to show us the thing that Burger really fears: a world that isn’t worth living in. What we get instead of a movie about horror is a horror movie. Since we know, thanks to the film’s framing device, that Sorowitsch will survive; and we know, thanks to the film’s subtitles, that the main action of the movie begins not long before the war’s conclusion, we spend our time counting the days and hoping everyone survives. It's a concentration camp as haunted house. The film’s irony saps its philosophical, and mortal, urgency.

The Counterfeiters was meant to be a fine movie, as precise and dangerous as an etcher’s tool—its specificity and subjectivity were supposed to distinguish it from lumberingly didactic movies about persecution—but it ends up being slight. We were meant to feel trapped with the counterfeiters in their untenable plight, and caught with Burger and Sorowitsch in fierce philosophical conviction. But Ruzowitzky lacks the filmic and philosophical vocabulary to make this immediacy mean anything. While a tango blares and the camera shakes, Burger and Sorowitsch spar furtively around an elusive moral center, the terms of their combat inarticulate and equivocal.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Boston Marriage

Last night we went to the Gamm Theatre in Pawtucket to see David Mamet’s Boston Marriage. The stage is small and no seat is very far from its edge; in dimension and intimacy it’s like a racquetball court, which is the perfect size, and a good metaphor, for this show. Mamet’s relentless verbal deconstructions privilege the well-angled over the hard-hit and the long volley over the slammed winner, and for the most part the actors play them right. The end of the play sags a little from depletion—whether it’s Mamet’s or the actors’ I’m not sure—but since it’s a three-character show with no out-of-bounds and just one intermission the onset of fatigue is easy to understand. I hope to have a real review posted before Sunday evening, which is your last opportunity to see the show.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Paranoid Park: Alex in Wonderland

Positioned at opposite ends of the small Midwestern town where I went to college were two very different structures—to the north, a small, skeletal power facility; to the south, a large grocery store. During the day they were innocuous enough, but at night both hummed and pulsed with mysterious currents. One spring night, I remember, I happened to find my way south, to the grocery store, where I was paralyzed by a sudden recognition: they were connected after all; there was only one current. This connection, clarified by the night’s darkness and by the incandescence of the grocery store lights and by the throat-sung buzz of the ATM in the parking lot, seemed to confirm the connection of everything to all other things. I didn’t feel a reassuring sensation of oneness with the universe, like the climax of a Tolstoy novel, but an unsettling reverberation of the world’s coded and murmured conversations. If the power facility was connected to the grocery store by forces I only vaguely understood—if things thought discrete were actually inscrutably linked—then what peculiar powers might bind me to which distant strangers?

This discomfiting sense of atomization, of the world’s prevailing randomness, is the dominant tone of Gus Van Sant’s eerie and elegiac Paranoid Park, the latest in a line of movies of which Terrence Malick’s Badlands might be the first and which includes Killer of Sheep; Blue Velvet; George Washington; and Me, You, and Everyone We Know. In those movies, children, adrift in semi-urban areas, explore the porous boundary between the innocent and the sinister, the premeditated and the accidental, the home as a place where they have to take you in and the house as a place where other people lived before you and still more will live after you. Our claims to the world, these movies suggest, are contingent and tenuous: to borrow from Deborah Eisenberg, the thing we think is going on is not what’s going on at all; there’s a top thing and a bottom thing and “sometimes the thing on the bottom just pops out…Into the top thing.” Or, like Alice adventuring in Wonderland, sometimes the top thing pops out into the bottom thing.

In Paranoid Park, Alex, a novice skateboarder, discovers this convergence at an elaborate skate park under a Portland, Oregon highway. (The movie’s first scene—an elastically tethered, slow-motion skateboard ballet shot in grainy Super-8 and scored with a narcotic musical collage—establishes Paranoid Park as Alex’s Wonderland.) Befriended by some older skaters during a night when he is content to simply watch the action, Alex finds himself drawn into the nocturnal world of adult motivations, activities, and consequences: while hopping a train with one of his new acquaintances, he accidentally kills a zealous night watchman by pushing him away and into the path of a train on a parallel track. The banality of the events that bring Alex to the skate park; the unpredictability of his encounter with the older skaters; the instinctiveness of his self-defense—none of these seemed ineluctably destined for tragedy. But for Van Sant, Alex isn’t the sum of his intentions but the product of his actions: he is, however accidentally, a murderer.

The film’s narrative is framed by Alex’s effort to write down the events of that night, its fractured discontinuities and revisions the result of his hazy memory and his shattered identity. Van Sant follows while Alex navigates his world as someone fundamentally estranged from it, and if friends and family are suddenly unfamiliar to him, it is because he has become a stranger to himself. Writing, then, becomes a form of mapping: perhaps, after he has documented the blurred borders of his new self, he will be able to venture beyond them again. The movie’s major flaw is that we have never seen Alex at home anywhere. He is never completely at ease with his family or his social networks—even the high school skateboarders maintain that they’re not really a community, that they hardly know each other. This means that Alex’s severance feels more like expatiation than expulsion, and the murder more symbolic than tragic. It’s hard to know how to feel about a character who doesn’t know how to feel about himself.

Paranoid Park’s other distraction—and the flip-side of its success—is its generous deployment of slow-motion photography. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who filmed most of the movie, frames his simple shots elegantly and lingers patiently on his subjects; and Rain Kathy Li shoots the extra-narrative skateboarding sequences, like the opening scene in Paranoid Park, with a startling and exciting intimacy. But there’s something palliative about slow motion: it reduces whatever and whomever it slows to a purely aesthetic phenomenon. So skateboarding is emptied of its political, social, and even transportational subversion in the same way that the ruination of the small Southern town in George Washington, filmed with near-fetishistic attention, is deprived of its historical context. Slow motion forces us to look longer at a world we acknowledge typically with glancing consideration, but it also changes this world. The music hums and whispers and careers and sighs—it’s the sound of dislocation and evanescence, the sound of a connection that makes us feel farther away from ourselves, the sound of buzzing lights and radios in passing cars and a small-town power plant; it’s the sound of us, listening—and the thing we’re looking at looks back at us. Maybe this is what art is for, after all: to lock us in a gaze with what we’re all too eager to ignore in our more real lives.

(Paranoid Park is showing this evening at 9:fifteen at Cable Car. You really should go.)

Monday, April 7, 2008

Monday Sundries

First, please take a look at my amendment to Friday's review of Blithe Spirit. Reviewing is provisional, and I think no judgment, no matter how certain its dispatch, should ever be considered irrevocable.

Also, I saw Gus Van Sant's beautiful Paranoid Park last night at the Cable Car. I'm still working on how to say something--anything--about it. Support Cable Car and support strange cinema: see it.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Blithe Spirit Review Round-Up

Channing Gray loved Blithe Spirit. It's not the usual "humdrum, nose-in-the-air Noël Coward," he says; this production takes us on a "dazzling romp into the world of martinis and cucumber sandwiches." Martinis and cucumber sandwiches? That's right: you're in Coward Country now.

Louise Kennedy at The Boston Globe writes rapturously about it as well.

James Merolla at The Sun Chronicle was less impressed. He sees 67 years of movies about ghosts and spouses draining the "zing" from the experience of seeing Blithe Spirit.

However, the Wall Street Journal's Terry Teachout, the presumptive ace in this hand, thought it was just terrific. The show, he concludes in contrast with a South Pacific revival, is "enduringly fresh." His review, brief and brisk, is a fun read.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Trinity Rep's Blithe Spirit

Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit, written at a sprinter’s pace over five days in 1941 and performed with Phidippidal perseverance for the next several years, is a product of, and an homage to, times made conditional by war. Ostensibly a comedy about the exasperating and disruptive return of a writer’s dead wife, it is also about the plastic nature of time itself: years pass, people change, histories are re-remembered, and what seems like just yesterday may really be an adumbration of tomorrow. Perhaps in the eschatological mood of the early 1940s—when civilization itself seemed singularly intent on suicide and each day was provisional—stories about the indeterminacy of the future and the fungibility of the past were not mere luxuries but cultural consolations. Countering the high-pitched sentiments of patriotism, destiny, and sacrifice that resonate through a nation at war, Coward’s play suggests that since death is not only pleasant but negotiable—it’s more a nuisance than a menace—survivor’s guilt is a poetic extravagance rather than a ritual necessity. This may be an important message in fatuous and fearful times: it just isn’t very funny. The refusal to take tragic ages tragically (per D. H. Lawrence) is a particular hallmark of the British disposition, and there’s something strained in the translation of Blithe Spirit to an American stage even in our own tragic times. The show begins as a drawing-room comedy, develops into a satire of the British fascination with the occult, and then regresses into a misogynistic farce. The trajectory of my own impressions, charting along these changes in tone, started with mild engagement, drifted towards enjoyment, and then plummeted into disappointment. I have never eaten the famous boiled beef of the British Isles but I imagine the experience is similar.

In the opening scene, writer Charles Condomine and his second wife, Ruth, are preparing themselves for a séance that evening—“preparing” being a euphemism for inebriating—during which Charles will collect information for a new book he’s planning about a fraudulent clairvoyant. Coward portrays without judgment the trivial lives of his main characters: the Condomines drink several martinis, scold their nervous new servant, Edith—but only gently—and trade barbs about Charles’s first wife and the nature of love. Their guests, Dr. and Mrs. Bradman, arrive with a flourish, Dr. Bradman’s taxidermal akwardness a stark contrast to his wife’s dynamitic presence. Finally Madame Arcati, the local medium, makes the scene. She has ridden a bicycle to the house.

The séance itself, which Charles has anticipated with a skeptic’s zeal, proves that Madame Arcati is no phony. The spirit she summons is that of Charles’s first wife, Elvira, who is visible and audible only to Charles. Elvira’s not particularly divine presence—it’s full of physical yearning and a genteel profanity—is a terrific jab at the seriousness of the British occult tradition. Indeed, the source of the play’s friction is that Elvira, having been called to this realm, is unable to make her way back; she’s like a commuter stymied by public transportation’s fickle schedule. So much for spectral powers. As her return goes on “indefinitely,” her honeymooner’s enthusiasm sours to shrewish querulousness and she and Charles resume the sort of petty fighting that marked their relationship when she was still alive. While this narrative twist spikes our clichés about death, dying, and the art of living—for an elaboration on those, see Thornton Wilder’s Our Town—it also stinks of hackneyed misogyny. We have been given no evidence of Charles’s venality and vanity, explicit or implied, so Elvira’s excoriation of his character feels unjustified and simply vindictive. This sort of meanness does not seem to me particularly funny: it reinforces dull and desiccated stereotypes about controlling wives and vengeful husbands. The surprise of seeing our reductive ideas of death’s finality and memory’s sanctity overturned is nullified by Coward’s confirmation of our lazy ideas about marriage.

The performances are as varied as the show’s tone. Phyllis Kay, whose Queen Elizabeth in Richard III was a steely obstacle to Richard’s bloody rise to power, gives her characterization of Elvira a devilishly conspiratorial quality, but she also suffuses it with sympathy. Hers is easily the richest, most engaging performance of the evening. Angela Brazil, playing the confused and frustrated Ruth, is charming—in the way that Lucille Ball was charming. The part is physically and vocally stressful and her strident, convulsive performance may be a solution to the problem of space. If she had had fewer square feet to wheel around in, and fewer seats in the dark distance of the theater—where I was sitting—to throw her voice to, she might have been able to relax into a more naturally scaled performance. Sadly, there is nothing strange, sinister, or supernatural in Barbara Meek’s Madame Arcati: it is too carefully crafted. She doesn’t bring with her the pungent smell of patchouli and potions, or an unexpected and comic professionalism; her performance is nice and distinctly unmodulated. As Charles, Fred Sullivan, Jr. is as dry as the martinis his character makes. He really does have a certain tongue-bitten humor down to a science. Cynthia Strickland works hard for her laughs as the batty, babblative Mrs. Bradman. Dressed like a frosted cupcake, she coos and fusses over Madame Arcati and saves her severity for her overmatched husband, who is very much a cipher in William Damkoehler’s hands.

I had hoped Curt Columbus would present something spry after Trinity’s turgid Richard III and the disappointing Some Things Are Private, and though the show is not terrible it is somehow uninspired. I can’t help thinking that, perhaps, this Spirit does not transcend the era in which it was written, even under the guidance of such an expert medium as Columbus.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

4.7.08--I want to revisit this last paragraph but I also want to keep the original version up as a testament to a kind of dishonesty. To wit, what on earth does "the show is not terrible [but] it is somehow uninspired" really mean? And is it the conclusion to which the review genuinely tends? The answers here are "nothing" and "no."

I used the word "uninspired" to describe the show because I couldn't resist the silly pun, spirit and inspire having in common the Latin root spirare, meaning to breathe. But it is not breath that this production is short of; indeed, as a respiratory (there's that root!) demonstration it's tremendously successful. What the show lacks is coherence: there's no real world around which the script or the characters congeal. Blithe Spirit has all the conviction and consequence of a sitcom, in which considerations of characters' integrity or dignity are secondary to the convenience of a good joke. The jokes are very clever and exceedingly well delivered, but they seem to come from nothing and disappear into nowhere. Or, to put it another way, they seem to be addressed by, and to, Mr. Noël Coward; there are no characters in the play, just vehicles designed for prompt and precise delivery. If Curt Columbus and the cast of Trinity Rep, for all of their energy and exhalation (expiration being a poor choice of words for the act of breathing out), can't quite animate the show, it's because there's no show there. It fulfills the first half of the escapist fantasy: we certainly leave our homes and our own problems for two hours; but it betrays the second: who can tell where we escaped to?

(Blithe Spirit is at Trinity Repertory Theater through April 27th.)

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Blog Spirit

I saw Blithe Spirit at Trinity Rep this evening; I'll have a review up in a day or two. My first impression is that the show is clever and jaunty enough to be fun but not smart enough to provoke--it's sharp but it has no traction.

Here's Channing Gray's review of 2nd Story's Orpheus Descending. We agree in our appraisal of the show--a tough play well acted--but not in how to write about art.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

2nd Story Theatre's Orpheus Descending

It’s been a good season for late Tennessee Williams plays in Providence. First, in the fall, the Brown/Trinity Consortium put on a big, uninhibited Camino Real; now, Warren’s 2nd Story Theatre is showing Orpheus Descending. The play has an inauspicious history: it flopped first when it was debuted in 1940 (as Battle of Angels) and then again after Williams revised it and had it produced in 1957. Its cool reception must have been in part due to its busy-ness. Though it deals with the familiar themes of Williams’s major works and the pillars of his bleak existentialism—isolation, alienation, captivity—it lacks the narrative purity and poetic discipline of The Glass Menagerie or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. In those plays, the family, its bonds covalent and confining, is the fundamental social and dramatic unit; the outside world is a cruel force to unite against rather than a physical space to navigate and understand. If Williams’s characters are trapped by secrets and delusions, it is because they have chosen those comforts over the world’s callous indifference. The problem is that Orpheus Descending has this indifferent world as its subject rather than its nebulous antagonist, but Williams has not taken in this wider view with a proportionately refined philosophical lens. The small southern town in which Lady Torrance and Carol Cutrere vie for the attentions and energy of outsider Valentine Xavier is hell because, ipso facto, the world is hell. This is not much of a conclusion and makes for pretty timid—which is to say safe, not quiet—drama. Indeed, the show bursts with the motion of characters and ideas, as if stirring pabulum might make it any more nutritive. Credit must go to the fine cast, then, for making the show as robust as it is.

The elements of Southern Gothic are laid out for us in the first scene. In the main room of a small-town general store, Dolly Hamma (Sandra Slonim) and Beulah Binnings (Susie B. Powers) are setting up a potluck buffet celebrating the return of shop-owner Jabe Torrance from a medical check-up in New Orleans. While they gossip about his long-term prospects, taking no small pleasure in their own health, Carol Cutrere, a “fallen” daughter of a local plantation-owner, stumbles drunkenly into the shop: her profligate behavior has gotten her kicked out of town and she needs to use the shop’s phone to tell a friend to expect her that night. Lurching in after she’s done is local pariah Uncle Pleasant, a mutely benign Choctaw Indian who disgusts the delicate Dolly and Beulah but fascinates young Carol. Into this combustible mix come Vee Talbott (Lynne Collinson), a visionary painter, and her young ward, Valentine Xavier (Kyle Maddock). Talbott, an inveterate do-gooder, hopes to secure a job at the shop for Val, an itinerant guitarist; for his part, Val seems only to want to stay out of trouble. His best intentions are thwarted when Carol recognizes him from his days as a Don Juan and a small-time hustler and invites him to go out “jooking” with her that evening. Eventually, to the sardonic chagrin of Greek chorus-girls Dolly and Beulah, he submits, and the two run out into the southern night. Gossips, tramps, noble savages, mystics, handsome loners—this over-burdened scene is a gallery of clichés, shrill and graceless. Williams never finds the particular in the general: gossips are just gossips, tramps are never really just tramps, and the guy with the guitar actually might have the power to save.

The show is energized when Val gets a job from the shop’s temporary manager, Lady (Rae Mancini), Jabe Torrance’s wife. Like Val, whose authenticity and artistry have forced him to the margins of society, Lady lives on the social fringe; her Italian father had been killed by a gang of racist thugs, and her heritage is a liability in the parochial small town. But she makes no compromises: she refuses to repudiate her past or to renounce her instinctive sympathy for outcasts. Still, there is the feeling that she is defined and limited by her oppositional attitude. Val’s virility—with his guitar and his snakeskin jacket he is both creator and tempter—arouses her desire to love, not just live, and to engage, rather than judge. The tension between these two is terrific, the parlous urgency of their scenes both sexual and philosophical. Lady believes that humans can share their freedom; Val is certain that the best they can do is to be trapped and alone together.

Their scenes are full of the sort of portentous symbolism that we expect from Williams and that renders many of his lines totally inert, but Maddock and Mancini find the right pitch for their character’s tendentious monologues. Although much is made about Val’s naturally warm body temperature, it is Lady’s avian febrility that we feel; Mancini portrays Lady’s yearnings with a wonderful fragility, though her heavily accented speech is occasionally arrhythmic and hesitant. Over the run of the show, she will surely master the demands of the script and the cadences of her accent. Kyle Maddock, who in profile resembles the playwright and actor Sam Shepard, reads (or at least transmits) Val’s heat as coolness, and gives it a convincing honesty and sexual allure. Val and Lady are the real center of a play rigged with plot contrivances and caricature.

We know that the hopes these two have for their freedom will be crushed—this is Tennessee Williams, after all—and that the futures they plan for will remain nothing more than a dream. But when tragedy finally arrives it’s in the form of melodrama: Lady is pregnant! Jabe has a decades-old secret! Vee, the visionary painter, goes blind! It’s Holy Saturday! If even Williams’s best plays walk the edge of respectability, this one trips right over it. Maudlin in its sentiments, obvious in its symbolism, inelegant in its language, and generic in its observations, Orpheus Descending is compelling only for the opportunities it gives to actors to redeem it. It’s a pleasure watching 2nd Story’s cast do just that.

(Orpheus Descending is showing Thursday-Saturday at 8:00 pm for the next three weeks; Sunday matinées are at 3:00.)