You can always tell
when a character onstage is no longer doing what he or she wants but is now doing what the playwright wants. Suddenly the character stops saying what you’d expect from someone with that personality in those circumstances and starts talking in ways that are convenient for a writer in search of a quick laugh, a plot twist, or a tidy ending. When this happens, it’s almost as if you can see the character lean in one direction only to be jerked the opposite way by the marionette strings in the playwright’s hands.
This happens again and again in Steven Dietz’s
at Everyman Theatre. According to the program, Dietz tied with Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee for eighth place in a list of 2010’s “Top Ten Most Produced Playwrights in America (Excepting Shakespeare).” Dietz did this not by having a Williams-like or Albee-like command of language, character, and story, but by churning out one-set, small-cast shows that can heal any theater’s budget—shows like Shooting Star. Here the set is the gray carpet, black-and-silver benches, and overhead signs of an airport waiting lounge, and the only two characters are ex-lovers who bump into each other at an airline hub shut down overnight by a blizzard.
Everyman designer James Fouchard adds some flair to the set by including a thousand snowflakes suspended in midair behind the plate-glass windows. The male character, Reed McAllister (Paul Morella), explains the weather by quipping, “The storm began in Canada. Canada is the home of storms, hockey, and Neil Young. All of these things, with the exception of storms and hockey, have made the world a better place.” The joke implies that Reed is a wise-ass iconoclast, but he’s not; he’s a corporate salesman in a gray, pinstripe suit—a guy who’s doing everything possible to keep a calm, serious demeanor in the face of marital problems at home and a sales meeting he can’t get to. The joke wasn’t something he’d say; it was something Dietz put in his mouth.
With her purple tasseled shawl, new-age rainstick, flowery see-through blouse, and right-off-the-bat insults about Reed’s presumed Republicanism, Elena Carson (Deborah Hazlett) is not so much an aging bohemian as she is the playwright’s caricature of an aging bohemian. Once again, Dietz puts the arch into archetype. None of Elena’s pieces quite fit together; when the author wants to make a joke about misty-eyed romantics, that’s who Elena is. When he wants to spark conflict, she’s suddenly a hard-bitten cynic. Jerk, jerk, jerk go the marionette strings.
Through all the TV-sitcom quips and flirting, we gradually learn that Reed and Elena lived together as lovers for 22 months in the mid-1970s at the University of Wisconsin. Now it’s the mid-2000s, and they’re seeing each other for the first time since they broke up. Reed, who lives in Boston with a wife and two kids, is trying to get to a meeting in Austin. Elena, who lives alone in Austin, is trying to get to Boston to see an old friend. It then develops that the wife and two kids have just moved out of the Boston home, while Elena is meeting someone besides the old friend in Boston. Now that their paths have crossed again, will Reed and Elena pick up where they left off?
Who cares? Dietz’s dialogue hits so many false notes that Reed and Elena never feel like real people, so their fate feels unimportant. Director Donald Hicken and his two performers struggle valiantly to overcome the play’s flaws, but it’s all in vain. Hazlett, red hair flying every which way, reveals the flame of desire that still burns within Elena, but the actress can never make the character’s ditzy moments mesh with her world-weary ones. Morella, dark hair never moving a centimeter, provides enough thoughtfulness and doubt to battle the show’s tendency to present Reed as a stock, conservative sellout, but he can never create one personality out of the many different Reeds that inhabit the script. Here is proof again that even the best actors can’t save a bad play.
Just when things should get interesting—when Elena has shed her shawl and Reed his jacket and tie as they sit side-by-side to dissect their years together—Dietz exposes his intellectual bankruptcy by turning to ’70s nostalgia jokes about Henry Kissinger, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, and J.J. Cale. You know he’s hit rock bottom when he builds a bit around
Jonathan Livingston Seagull
, a book no one under 40 has heard of and no one over 40 cares to remember—a book as shallow and pretentious as this play.