Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
February 4, 2011
The American Dream is under siege, in a world premiere and an American classic. When an aging man loses his job, and everything he’s worked for starts slipping away, he descends into a kind of madness. He abuses his sons, denigrates his wife. And finally, he cracks.
This scenario forms the bedrock of Arthur Miller’s 1949, Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, “Death of a Salesman” and also acclaimed La Jolla playwright Stephen Metcalfe’s new drama, “The Tragedy of the Commons.” The parallels are uncanny.
In each case, as in Greek and Shakespearean tragedy, the central character brings down his own house of cards, with his narcissistic blindness and refusal to confront the truth. We want to shake him, wake him out of his trance state of fantasy and flailing anger at the world that’s mistreated him. We want him to live in the present and stop dwelling on the golden moments of the past. But the downward spiral becomes inexorable, inevitable. We can only watch in a sort of horror as it unfolds.
Metcalfe’s central character, Dakin, is a former teacher who’s lost his son, his job and his connection to his wife. He spends his days sending vitriolic environmental rants into the blogosphere. Then, when the house next door goes on the market, he becomes obsessed with losing his beloved ocean view. Dakin’s fixation may seem trivial to us. But who’s to say what a man deems critical to his well-being – whether, like Miller’s Willy Loman , it’s pinning his hopes on a once-promising son or, like Dakin, maintaining the little piece of paradise he’s carved out for himself as a defense against a harsh world. Whatever his life-raft preoccupation, when it’s taken from him, he snaps.
Metcalfe’s new play is intriguing and compelling, though it does have a few weaknesses, including a cartoonish villain and a gratuitous connection to 9/11. But the dialogue is sharp, smart and credible, the characters well drawn. Cygnet Theatre’s first world premiere is very well acted, attractively designed and sensitively directed by Sean Murray .
At the Old Globe, “Death of a Salesman,” one of the greatest American plays of the 20th century, tells the story of one man’s decline, one family’s pain, one beaten-down working stiff who thinks he can get by on “a shoeshine and a smile.” But Willy runs out of options, hope and time. The timeless tragedy of an ordinary man remains a gut-wrenching, heartbreaking emotional knockout.
The Globe production is superb, imaginatively designed and meticulously directed by Pam MacKinnon, with a terrific cast anchored by Jeffrey DeMunn as Willy and Robin Moseley as his long-suffering and heroic wife.
In the backstreets of Brooklyn or the shores of La Jolla , both plays, rife with senescence, delusional thinking and sickness of the soul, stand as bitter indictments of our vaunted American values.
“The Tragedy of the Commons” runs through February 20 at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town .
“Death of a Salesman” continues at the Old Globe’s White Theatre, through February 27.
©2011 PAT LAUNER