Well, the Old Globe has done it again: brought new, or recent works to their stages, brimming with hope and high expectations. And once again, the result has fallen short. Despite their newness, both “Scotland Road” and “Labor Day” seem old and somewhat tired: over-intellectual, under-emotional and ultimately unsatisfying. What the Globe needs is a different play selection committee — fresh, young blood with youthful ideas. Both their current offerings suffer from a paucity of onstage action, a lack of compelling characters, and a self-congratulatory tone that screams, ‘Look how much I know! Look how clever I am!’
Billed as a psychological thriller, “Scotland Road” has an amusing back-story and an interesting premise. Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher was riding through South Dakota when he stopped at a 7-11 and saw a tabloid headline that read: “Titanic Survivor Found on Iceberg — and Her Dress is Still Wet!” The idea grabbed him and a play was born. (Scotland Road, by the way, was the name of a hidden passageway in the bowels of the ill-fated ship).
The play is written as a classic locked-room mystery — but it’s not really very mysterious and we sure don’t get that closed-in feeling — partly because of the Cassius Carter’s arena seating, and partly due to the set design, which seems to be oddly geared only to the final moment. The minimal action revolves around a persistent effort to disprove the young woman’s story. But at the moment of greatest suspense — when another Titanic survivor is brought in — the playwright dispatches the scene with such speed we don’t know what iceberg hit us. There are as many holes in the plot as there were in the Titanic — and the play sinks in just about the same amount of time. Such ill-defined characters and motivations, there’s no one we really relate to or care about, which makes it hard to stay with it even for a brief 90 minutes.
Staying with it is even harder in the world premiere of A.R. Gurney’s latest effort, “Labor Day.” In a play where the moments of greatest confrontation concern who’s gonna be allowed to play tennis and who’s gonna take a nap, the audience is about ready for a siesta, too. Gurney’s writing is witty, urbane and clever, but his characters here are stock, stodgy and uninteresting. Long criticized for obsessing about the dying breed of WASPs in America, Gurney has taken his preoccupation to the ultimate extreme. Whereas the forerunner of this piece, “The Cocktail Hour,” was humorous, pointed and semi-autobiographical, “Labor Day” is pointless and tedious, resembling a family photo album, of interest only to the principals. Never mind the barrage of smugly self-satisfied references and quotes, from Sophocles to Seinfeld. The direction and performances are excellent, but there isn’t much to work with in this ‘Day in the Life of the Rich and Dull.’
The playwright of “The Cocktail Hour” is now, like Gurney, in his sixties, with four children. He’s written a play that a young gay director, who’s just lost his apartment and his boyfriend, wants to take straight to the top. Seattle Rep is interested, and so is the Shubert Organization and even Robert Redford. But the ending is just too weak and sentimental. That’s understating the problems of “Labor Day,” but its ending is so silly it borders on embarrassing. With all its pontificating about theater action versus activity, there’s really not much of either here, though director Jack O’Brien, working valiantly, adds some clever stage business.
Josef Sommer is pleasantly avuncular as the sweetly weepy patriarch and Brooks Ashmanskas brings the play’s only really positive energy as the young director with the ridiculously incongruous rewrite ideas.
Ralph Funicello’s set is a wonderfully detailed writing studio on a sprawling Connecticut estate. There’s one beautiful moment of aurora lighting, but the nagging question throughout remains, Who cares? This was obviously a labor of love for the playwright, but it’s unfortunately laborious and unlovable for the audience.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.