Monday, July 29, 2019

New Plays: Tell Me I’m Not Crazy and The Hunt

Mark Blum and Jane Kaczmarek in Tell Me I’m Not Crazy. (Photo: Joseph J. O'Malley)

The four characters in Sharyn Rothstein’s new play Tell Me I’m Not Crazy, playing at the Nikos Stage in Williamstown, represent two shaky marriages and two generations of a contemporary Jewish-American family. Sol (Mark Blum) is at loose ends after coming to the end of a career in human resources. His wife Diana (Jane Kaczmarek), an elementary-school teacher, hoped that Sol’s retirement would allow them to spend the kind of quality time together that his job has prevented but is dismayed to discover that they’re more distant than ever – and that their sex life has dwindled to nothing. Their son Nate (Mark Feuerstein), having failed to find his niche in the photography world, has been playing the role of caregiver for his two young children while his wife Alisa (Nicole Villamil) pursues a career in advertising that demands more and more time away from the family. When their three-year-old’s behavioral problems at daycare prompt immediate action, it’s Nate who has to carry the ball. Both marriages threaten to implode when Sol, distressed over some recent home invasions in their nice middle-class neighborhood, purchases a gun. Alisa and Nate stop bringing their kids over to his folks’, Diana throws Sol out of the house, and rather than back-pedal on his vow to take extreme steps to keep his family safe, Sol exacerbates the problem by joining a neighborhood vigilante group.

Rothstein has a talent for funny one-liners, and for the first half-hour or so (the play runs an hour and forty minutes without intermission) you think she’s onto something: a satirical comedy about couples trying to negotiate gender roles in the twenty-first century – as well as racial realities, since Alisa is Hispanic and Sol’s anger and paranoia about the danger to his suburb provokes him to assume that the perpetrators must be illegal immigrants. Rothstein keeps piling on more and more issues and revelations, and the only way the play could possibly support all of them is in the form of a nutty absurdist comedy that keeps threatening to go off the rails, like the ones Christopher Durang is famous for. Instead it gets more and more serious and you stop believing in it at all. I think that happens as soon as Sol comes clean about joining the neighborhood enforcers, a totally implausible development for this character except in an absurdist work. The play is a mess. The dramaturgy falls apart completely in a series of second-act scenes where each of the characters makes an announcement that, we find out five minutes later, is actually a lie. It feels as though Rothstein is making it all up as she goes along.

Kaczmarek and Feuerstein, each the veteran of a successful TV sitcom (Malcolm in the Middle and Royal Pains respectively), use the resource of their comic timing to keep afloat. Blum and Villamil are less fortunate. Villamil doesn’t appear to have any comic chops at all, which makes the moment when Nate tells Alisa that he fell in love with her partly because of her great sense of humor pretty puzzling. Blum is a fine actor; I’ve admired him for years in plays like After the Revolution and the last Broadway revival of Twelve Angry Men. (He’s a regular on the TV show Mozart in the Jungle, where he plays Union Bob.) But Rothstein has no feeling for Sol or for Alisa, so both Blum and Villamil are fighting an uphill battle from the outset, struggling to bring characters to life for with whom the playwright seems to find it impossible to empathize.

Alexander Woodward’s two-level set includes the kitchen, living room and dining room of a typical suburban home, and the lower tier is mostly taken up by a sofa and a table and chairs; when you walk into the Nikos and see how crowded the space is you get worried. The director, Moritz Von Stuelpnagel, is a past master at staging comedies (Seared in last year’s Williamstown season, Present Laughter on Broadway with Kevin Kline); it’s telling that, with only four actors on the stage in Tell Me I’m Not Crazy, he has trouble getting them out of each other’s way (and out of the way of the furniture). The way Woodard has designed the set, the most logical thing would be to have the actors sitting in every scene, but of course Von Stuelpnagel is way too much of a pro to do that: it would be deadly. The other design peccadillo is that the set is supposed to stand in for both Sol and Diana’s home and Nate and Alisa’s, but very little actually changes during the shifts, though Von Stuelpnagel has taken pains to draw our attention to them. And for some reason we also have to watch Sol work out at the shooting range, though only one of these scenes contains any dialogue. Going for a realist design instead of staging the play on a bare-bones abstract set makes as much sense as writing it as a slab of domestic realism. The problems in Tell Me I’m Not Crazy seem so obvious that it’s hard to fathom what the Williamstown Theatre Festival could have seen in this play. It’s the most befuddling new work I’ve seen at this theatre since the last one Kaczmarek signed up for, The Roommate, two seasons ago.

The cast of The Hunt at London's Almeida Theatre. (Photo: Marc Brenner)

Rupert Goold’s production at the Almeida of The Hunt, adapted by Thomas Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm from their screenplay for Vinterberg’s 2012 movie and adapted by David Farr, packs a punch. Set in an insulated rural Danish town, it tells the story of Lucas (Tobias Menzies), an elementary schoolteacher unjustly accused of pedophilia and ostracized despite a lack of convincing evidence against him. One of his students, Clara (played alternatively by Abbiegail Mills, Taya Tower and Florence White), whose parents, Theo (Justin Salinger) and Mikala (Poppy Miller), are his closest friends, gives him the present of a lollipop in an empty classroom after school while he’s supervising her, waiting for her (typically late) folks to show up to fetch her. A gifted teacher with highly tuned radar for the psychology of his pupils, Lucas recognizes the gift – and her touch as she reaches out for his face – as misplaced, confused and inappropriate and gently rejects both. But Clara, whose home life has been blighted by the tensions between her parents (Theo drinks too much, Mikala is having an affair), is hurt and blurts out a story about Lucas to the principal, Hilde (Michele Austin). She calls in a member of the board (Howard Ward) with no training in dealing with allegedly abused children, and his leading questions for the child have the expected consequence of confirming her story rather than exposing it as a fantasy. The hysteria spreads, and soon three other schoolchildren join in, making claims that Lucas molested them in his cellar. But there is no cellar in his house, and eventually Clara, disappointed because Lucas won’t be joining them for Christmas this year, hints to her mother that she’s been telling lies. Still Theo continues to believe that something happened between his daughter and his friend; still the town treats him as a pariah. His retiring personality, his estrangement from a woman everyone up to now has considered crazy, his struggle to get custody of his teenage son Marcus (Stuart Campbell) – all of these elements suddenly score against him. People he’s known all his life are quick to insist that they never really knew him at all.
Vinterberg and Lindholm’s portrait of lynch-mob mentality is convincing enough, especially if you’ve ever witnessed at first hand how it can boil up among reasonable people. And Goold’s work with the actors – including the two children (Harrison Houghton and George Nearn Stuart alternate in the role of the little boy, Peter, who shows Clara porno images on his cell phone that color her story) – and his building of the sinister mood and ratcheting up of the suspense are extraordinary. In the central role, Menzies gives a display of pinpoint focus and sustained in-the-moment acting that you rarely get to see even from our best stage actors. A friend once described to me what it was like to watch Christopher Walken on stage in the original Broadway production of David Rabe’s Hurlyburly. (Unfortunately Walken wasn’t in the show for long and he’d dropped out by the time I caught it.) He said that Walken was so utterly absorbed in the onstage action that when he glanced at his watch and told the others that he had to leave for an appointment, my friend forgot that he was watching an actor and not simply witnessing a real-life moment in real time. That’s the effect Menzies achieves in The Hunt - and he’s onstage in nearly every scene.

Notwithstanding the persuasiveness of the psychological narrative and the director’s ability to elicit both horror and terror, however, I had trouble buying into The Hunt. Goold is one of the savviest and most imaginative of current English directors, and his theatrical flair is often exciting, but in this case I think his theatricality is hollow. The set, designed by Es Devlin, is a variation on her trademark cubes: it’s a glass enclosure that provides a metaphor for the community that closes Lucas out once he’s marked as a predator. When we first see it, early in the play, the men who belong to the local lodge, including Lucas, and the soon-to-be-inducted youngest member, Marcus, emerge from freezing cold water into a sauna, and later we see the lodge members getting drunk, making crass sexual jokes and singing stupid songs. We get the point – a trite one about men who behave like little boys – but the script and the way Goold has staged these scenes, as well as the fact that the set excludes us physically from the characters, ensure that we mistrust the values of this group from the beginning. Each of the two acts begins with Hilde addressing the audience at a school meeting; clearly Goold means us to imagine that we’re part of this community, the way Clifford Odets does by putting us in that union hall in Waiting for Lefty. But the moment we see the men inside that cube we’re pulled out of it, sitting in judgment. And if we can’t feel the draw of the lodge – which Lucas insists on visiting for the ritual Christmas drink after he’s released from jail, with predictable results – then all we’ve got, finally, is a simplified moral fable. (The TV series The Deuce has this problem, too: it’s so moralizing about the New York demi-monde of the 1970s that we never get a sense of what it is about it that turns people on.) And man, I got tired of looking at that damn glass structure. The visual metaphor ends up working against Goold’s staging because the need to make the space intimate means that when he puts more than a handful of people inside it we can’t always tell what the hell’s going on. That’s especially the case when, after Lucas and Marcus find Lucas’s dog slaughtered and left in a body bag, they interrupt the Christmas church service and chaos ensues. The scene is badly staged and physically incoherent.

I assume that the writers and Goold were thinking of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s great expressionist play The Visit, where a millionairess’s offer to lift a town out of poverty if its citizens will murder one of its most prominent burghers, a man who wronged her in their youth, slowly turns all of them against him. The Visit is a fable too, originally for the Holocaust (it was written in 1956), but it’s anything but simple. The protagonist, Alfred Ill, is not an innocent, and yet we watch, appalled, as he’s scapegoated for a crime in which the whole town colluded and now has to wash its hands of in order to get its thirty pieces of silver. (The name of the inn in which Ill’s accuser, Claire Zachanassian, makes her declaration is The Golden Apostle.) Ill is, like Lucas, caught up in an escalating nightmare: as he looks for protection from his friends, the Mayor, the Chief of Police and the Priest, he realizes that all the institutions of the town are aligned against him, and when he tries to run away at the end of the second act the town shows up en masse at the train station to prevent him. By the third act he has accepted his fate, and when the last worm turns – when the Schoolmaster, the symbol of humanism, begs him to fight against it because the Schoolmaster himself is too weak to resist succumbing to the pressures of the mob – Ill tells him that he can’t save any of them, that each of them must finally reckon with his or her own conscience.

Did I expect The Hunt to rise to the level of The Visit? No, but what it does instead is so obvious and preachy (particularly, I’d say, in the last few minutes) that for all its virtues I think it’s finally a crock. There’s a sequence involving the slaughter of a deer that comments on both the masculine hunting culture of this setting and the way that Lucas winds up, like the deer, being the hunted, but it’s not very complex either, and it feels, like the behavior of the men in the lodge, like something we’ve seen before. And like Devlin’s set, it requires us to leap past pretty cheap theatricality: an actor in a deer’s head enclosed in glass is a pretty silly stage image.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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