KPBS AIRDATE: JUNE 2, 1999
Whatever happened to the fourth wall? There used to be some distance and separation between actors and audience. But now, more than ever, the players come right out and talk to us directly. As if we’re friends. As if it’s as natural as yogurt that hundreds of us have come to visit. Or spy. Maybe it’s a function of our artificially, electronically interactive society. Anyway, I don’t always appreciate the direct approach. Whether I like it or not, it’s here to stay – right now in two productions: one musical, one drama. In neither case does it really add anything to the play. But it’s one way for playwrights to deal with the eternal, infernal exposition problem: how to communicate all that background info that’s so important to understanding what’s going on, or what came before.
The funniest approach is taken in “Lucky Stiff,” the old/new musical by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, the masterminds behind “Ragtime.” In the second act opener, the outrageously over-the-top Leigh Scarritt, wheeled out in a laundry basket, sings to us to listen up, because she’s explaining the plot. Good thing, too. It’s kinda convoluted. This was an early effort by Ahrens & Flaherty– and it shows. Goofy, silly, pointless, but fun – if you like that sort of thing — it’s a frothy little crime caper involving a trip to Monte Carlo with a corpse. Don’t even ask. It’s a fine romp for the family, even though it’s a decidedly lo-tech, chintzy Starlight Musical Theatre production. Maybe all the scenery was chewed up by the actors. But the performances are a definite treat, especially Scarritt as the myopic Brooklyn femme fatale, Eric Anderson, hilarious as her nerdy/ neurotic optometrist brother; Tracy Hughes as a sexy, Josephine Baker-like chanteuse; and, as the innocent ingénues, James Saba and Alexandra Auckland. Enjoy the plane silence, before the Starlight summer season begins.
On a much more serious note, there’s “Three Days of Rain,” a structurally and linguistically brilliant creation by Richard Greenberg, which was a finalist for the 1998 Pulitzer Prize. In the first act, each of the three young characters introduces him or herself to us directly, and tells us who they are, why they’re here, and what they thought about their parents. Walker and Nan are sister and brother, and, along with Pip, the son of their late father’s partner, they’re gathered for the reading of the will. True to his name, Walker’s been gallivanting about for a year, incommunicado. He even missed his father’s funeral. He’s a very New York, very neurotic, very quippy intellectual type. In fact, pretty much the whole play is written in that smartass style that’s so quintessentially, esoterically, cerebrally New York.
But Greenberg isn’t just showing off. He’s got a lot on his mind: about parents and children, about the architecture of buildings and relationships and plays, about how the sins and aspirations of parents are visited, in highly unexpected ways, on their children. The references may be arcane, but the language is wonderful, as elevated, angular and filled with light as the remarkable buildings designed by the partners of Wexler Janeway, internationally renowned architects.
Why Ned Janeway maintained the tiny, little dingy apartment where the play takes place, is his children’s conjecture. But in the second act, set 35 years earlier, we learn what actually happened – in the apartment, the partnership, the bedroom and the subsequent families – we have the 360-degree perspective on the early aspirations and the realities and ramifications. To Ned, the only link between “what we want and what we get” is an arc of guilt, “the preposterous instinct that we are wholly responsible for events completely out of our control.” “Things are so much better before they actually start,” he tells us. And that, the author implies, applies to architecture, and playwriting and marriage.
In the Old Globe production, Andrew Traister has cast and directed expertly: Michael Reilly Burke, Reed Diamond and Francia Di Mase are wondrous in their dual roles. The lighting and sound design, with the New York street-noise and the rainfall edging the Cassius Carter circular stage, are like the play itself, bracing, stimulating and thoroughly exhilarating.
©1999 Patté Productions Inc.