Sunday, July 12, 2015

Inge - Off the Main Road - and in to the Ditch

Off the Main Road – and Into the Ditch

Why has Inge become the impossible playwright? His lauded writing is mostly from a certain time period and mostly from a specific region, though the same can be largely said of his peers Williams and Miller. Yet, it seems no one can direct or rarely perform Inge. The allegedly ‘newly’ discovered Inge 3 Act play Off the Main Road, makes its first and possibly last full production at Williamstown Theatre Festival.  As most, if not all, reviewers will never have had the chance to read this play, they will take this production as the gospel. Shame on the director Evan Cabnet and to Williamstown for hiring him. First off, the production is a dramatic comedy directed as Greek tragedy/ melodrama where most of the laughs come at the fault of the production.  

I’ve seen sloppy direction before, and I can understand why a director wanted to have his name attached to the ‘first ever produced production’ of a legendary playwright, but when you have no fucking understanding of the material, it’s really disgusting for someone to take such an important job when they are so incapable. Cabnet has made a career off of chit-chatty, text driven drivel, but when it comes to something where directing muscle is involved, his lack of talent becomes apparent.  Once again, yes, once again, Inge will be the one who suffers because someone is too much of a hack to understand his play and its humor.  In years of theatre going, from kindergarten to Broadway and far beyond, I’ve never seen a play produced where no one did anything but talk. Zip.  They might as well have had music stands as other than an occasional sitting on a chair or sipping from the same booze bottle, out of an entire liquor layout, they essentially stood chorus line style and talked.  Yes, they just talked. There was NO behavior at all. Inge without behavior is deadly.

Inge needs someone to fill in the action (Partially why his first hits were legendary - they were directed by Kazan, Clurman and Logan)– namely, a great director, and in this case, there was none. A gorgeous set, which looks like it would better fit The Desperate Hours, had tons of vintage of appliances, cupboards, etc.  Only once, did someone open a cupboard to get a mug, and in a strange cottage, they immediately knew which cupboard the mug was in. Through the course of the play’s several months’ setting, no one brought in a new item: a tablecloth, a flower, etc.  Again, the booze assortment grew between one Act, though everyone still preferred the one bottle. (Were the others empty? Filled with poison in case Ms. Parsons had enough of this mediocrity?)

The story features loosey-goosey thrill seeker Faye Bennet Conroy Garrit, her aristocratic mother, and her 17-year old, overly-religious daughter.  We hear Faye’s mother talk about how rumors of her further sexual escapades will only add to the ruin of her already ‘falsely’ soiled reputation – exception, as we know, in this instance, the implication isn’t false. In order for her character to work, the past dalliances can’t be either.  (The productions reliance on every line as fact is one of its huge downfalls. People lie – a lot!) This promiscuity gives her parents just cause to have her married off as a youth to a wealthy man “old enough to be her grandfather.” He soon dies, leaving her with a fortune and a young daughter.  As portrayed by Ms. Sedgwick, a theatre novice, it seems apparent she’s wanted to play a likable character instead of fully giving in to the seediness and  ignorance of the character Inge created. (Either this or she is just truly horrid at scrip analysis.) By ignoring this huge character trait, it results in Sedgwick portraying a rather sophisticated character who constantly and earnestly says really stupid, out of character things, which get laughs, but for all the wrong reasons. 

Faye says her parents were always kind and gave her everything she ever wanted as a child. She has the same upbringing as Teena, the young woman in Inge’s Where’s Daddy? who wishes her parents hadn’t always been so kind and had maybe roughed her up once and a while for some excitement and so she could have felt loved. Faye fell in love with excitement which she found in her famous baseball player Manny Garrit. They were soon married much to the chagrin of her society family, and she was the talk of the town – being photographed with Manny, movie stars and the Governor. After Manny’s career fizzled, he turned to drink and frequently caused public scenes with his wife. The scene starts with a beaten Faye, 1st time ‘victim’ of the play.  The night before the play starts, Faye dragged him to a nightclub, where he is not welcome, makes him jealous and stays out all night without him. When she gets home, he gives her a terrible black eye (barely visible from mid-Orchestra) and she escapes to a cabin on the outskirts of town.  Two tiny dabs of greasepaint and the ‘huge’ bruise vanishes forever, and with a well-placed break-of-dawn call to her mother, drawing her out of bed, the play is off.  Five minutes later, her mother arrives, having driven from home - drawn from bed, dressed to the nines, hair perfectly coiffed, jeweled and in her fur coat – the first of dozens of head scratching nonsensical moments -  the grandmother, daughter and granddaughter stand in a line, have lots of exposition, and the grandmother storms out.  Moments later, Manny the abusive husband shows up to Faye’s supposed horror.  Faye the victim #2! Yet, a closer reading of the script if that she called her mother over to the cabin, not to fight and certainly not for comfort, but so that Manny could find her! (The fatal flaw of this production is playing Faye as a victim – she’s the antagonist. Not the smartest instigator, but she gets what she wants.) Instead of damning Manny for finding her always saying let him in, which makes her seem moronic, if she were damning him while fixing her makeup, we’d get a much clearer sense as to who she was. A more committed or better actress, such as Carla Gugino or an older Nina Arianda, could have knocked this complicated role out of the park.

Act II, the cab driver who dropped off Faye in the first 2 minutes returns to seduce her.  The sophisticated lady she is, she opens the door and in barely there bath towel, and puts on false pretense about not letting him in – again drawing laughs from the crowd as she’s playing the wrong character. To the real Faye, it’s finally, a thrill in this lousy place! It’s presented so foolishly and in direct opposition to the script, the oh, so clever reviewer at the New York Times suggested a female impersonator play the part as it came across so camp.  Act III, we see Manny has made the front page of the newspaper again; this time being released for murder on account of “temporary insanity”. Of course, when Faye realizes her daughter is entering the convent and Manny reminds her she will be all alone once the divorce goes through, she again wants the thrill of being with the man who’s made the front page of the paper – for whatever reason, he is famous again. Can’t we all relate kind of celebrity? Yet instead of playing her return to Manny as her return to fame and shallow importance, it’s directed so sloppily and somberly, audience members were mumbling how old-fashioned it was to have Inge return to her husband only to be beaten or maybe killed.  Her last line, said to herself, “No. There is nothing more to say,” is said with zero inflection as mood lighting and music come in.  NO choice has been made by actor or director. It’s mind-numbingly awful, and it is not the script. It does look like she’s going back to, ho-hum, be murdered, as well.

Speaking of the script, having seen the Saturday matinee and evening performance, 10 – 15% of the dialogue was different.  While mistakes happen, a line gets skipped, etc – which makes live theatre enjoyable, I’ve never seen a production that played so loosely with the text. YES! The text needed to be trimmed. Inge wrote this as a short TV episode in the 60’s. It was part of a proposed tv series ordered by NBC, but this was the only episode produced.  Until 2008 when it was “found”, there was no mention that there was ever a full play version of this script, which I think is suspect. Was it written as a full play and cut to a 60 minute TV show? Was it written as a 60 minute TV show and added to by someone else? Did he add on to it, and die before he could edit it? These are all valid questions and as no copyright exists, it’s doubtful we’ll ever get a concrete answer.

While Faye appears in 95% of the scenes, there are other cast members.  Legendary Estelle Parsons, playing Faye’s mother, is given the thankless job of trying to get her onstage daughter to react!  She frequently received entrance AND exit applause, partially due to her long experience, but because she brings much needed life on to the stage with her. In a way too small role, Becky Ann Baker is a treat.  Faye’s daughter, played by Mary Wiseman and her temporary beau played by Daniel Sharman, bring an honesty of young lovers, that while it may not quite fit the era of the play, is so sincere in its young love awkwardness, it is captivating and exciting. As Manny, Jeremy Davidson shows great potential, but he is given little to do but stand around with his hands on hips or sitting on an arm chair. The heavily dramatic scenes outside are so poorly lit, they are almost impossible to see.  

Still, it all comes back to the misdirection. Even veteran Parsons, stands around much of the time as if she were participating in a reading. The key to Inge is in the behavior; the subtext, of which there is none here.  All the text is taken at face value and it is a crime as so much characterization is lost.  In the months that this play elapses, no one ever does a single every day thing, such as eat, bring in groceries, wash a dish, just ANYTHING to resemble the everyday living that Inge wrote about so beautifully.  Also, this cabin is foreign to every character except the proprietor, yet everyone enters and knows where every item is. NO ONE ever looks around the room to see if it is a dump or not. This is ACTING 101!!! A character dies a horrid death in the cabin, and at one performance, the actors talked over him as if it were a Peter Shaffer comedy. At the 2nd performance, an actor momentarily damped his face with a dry hand towel as if he were sweaty – he was bleeding out on the floor. I’m not sure which was cornier.

If you want to experience Inge, any Inge, I’m afraid to say at this point, you’re going to need to pick up a script and read.

Allie Mulholland is the founder and director of the ReGroup Theatre Company. He’s also published the Lost Group Theatre Volumes 1-3. While every artists has the right to make mistakes, he’d drop dead if he ever directed anything this poorly. 

Yes, this seems particularly harsh. We live in a theatre where we give too many proverbial 'participation ribbons.' "Well, they tried." That's not enough.