KPBS AIRDATE: FEBRUARY 3, 1999
It was a big weekend of loss and abandonment for me – not in my personal life, but in the theater. I ventured north to Orange County and L.A. for a theater weekend of three plays in two days. And they all had to do with a search for something lost, and impossible to recapture. In all three, characters go back to some part of their past, only to find that, though they acquire a modicum of self-knowledge, they can’t fill the hole in their hearts.
“Tongue of a Bird,” at the Mark Taper Forum, is all about flight. Maxine, a search-and-rescue pilot, is brought in at the eleventh hour of the 11th day, to try and find a young girl who was abducted and dragged off to the snowy mountains. But Maxine winds up looking for her own lost childhood, and the reasons for her mother’s suicide, her obsession with Amelia Earhart, and her grandmother’s spooky stories of witchy night-flights. Her dead mother flies in through the ceiling, precisely as the playwright, Ellen McLaughlin, made her startling entrance as the millennial angel in “Angels in America.” One can’t quite lose that feeling of déjà vu, but this suspended woman hangs sideways and upside down, and mingles with the other ghosts haunting Maxine – visions of the lost young girl and of her own abandoned younger self.
The play is both real and surreal. On one level, there’s the very grounded grief of the mother who’s lost a child. On another level, there are all these visions and phantoms and imaginings. The production is quite beautiful, gorgeously designed and lit, backed by aptly eerie music and sound by Gina Leishman, and magnificently directed by Lisa Peterson at the Mark Taper Forum.
The writing is dense and poetic at times, melodramatic at others, and the same can be said of the acting. Everyone seems to be straining a bit too much; the text and the portrayals feel forced, even given the extreme talent of stellar performers like Cherry Jones, who plays the no-nonsense Maxine, and Marion Seldes, who’s her Polish crone of a grandma. But there are moments of lyrical beauty and drop-dead stage pictures. And though that isn’t quite enough for a totally satisfying theater experience, it certainly does a lot to make this disturbing play take flight.
The other two pieces were far more earth-bound. In “The Old Neighborhood,” the not-normally-sentimental David Mamet tries to go home again. Mamet’s long-time alter-ego, Bobby Gould, appears in three short playlets: one with an old buddy, one with his sister, and the last, a far less fulfilling piece, with his former girlfriend. He’s going through a divorce and feeling disconnected, but his brief visit leaves him even more alienated. At once funny and bitter, the writing portrays a profound sense of loss and disappointment, and a strong impression of moving away but not moving on. At the Geffen Playhouse, director Michael Bloom has a flawless sense of Mametian language, style and rhythms. As the erstwhile buddies, Dennis Boutsikaris and David Warshofsky are particularly adept at mastering that rat-a-tat timing and those heavily meaningful pauses. An excellent production overall, playing in repertory with its self-revealing companion piece, “The Cryptogram.”
On the way home from L.A., stopping off in Costa Mesa, we caught the acclaimed David Hare play, “Skylight” at South Coast Repertory Theatre. Two former lovers come together, and try to figure out why their clandestine relationship fell apart. Laced with humor, pathos and universality, the piece concerns social conscience and personal responsibility, two common themes in the works of the recently knighted playwright. Compellingly acted by Cindy Katz and Martin Jarvis, and unfussily directed by Martin Benson, this is more than a couple, a relationship or a social treatise. It’s a veritable slice of English class-conscious life, but there’s something bittersweet and biting for us here, too.
The moral of all these stories? Sometimes, as the tough-as-nails grandma in “Tongue of a Bird” puts it, sometimes, “what’s lost is lost.”
©1999 Patté Productions Inc.