I was really looking forward to Arena Stage’s production of On the Verge. Who wasn’t? Playwright Eric Overmyer has written for some of network television’s most intelligent television dramas, including St. Elsewhere, Homicide: Life in the Streets and The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd. The immensely gifted Tazewell Thompson – now Artistic Director at the excellent Westport County Playhouse – was coming back to Arena to direct. And Westport would co-produce the show! Not to mention the fact that Arena was on a terrific hot streak: several artistic and commercial successes in a row, most recently the superb Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, still playing at the Kreeger. How could this go wrong?
But it did go wrong. Numbingly, heartbreakingly wrong.
The premise is full of promise: in 1888, three intrepid women, all explorers, seek to discover a new land. But instead of traveling through space they catapult through time, discovering artifacts of the future instead of the past. Could this accelerated journey (as Steve Miller observes, we’re all time-traveling into the future) illuminate what we’ve become? Or, in keeping with the second title, The Geography of Yearning, would we learn how what we desire sculpts what we are?
In a word, no.
On a bare stage, three young women – each of them swaddled in a municipality of clothing, and dragging a condo-sized steamer – enter. They are in the Antipodes – literally, the “opposites” – and are about to explore Terra Incognita, the undiscovered country.
Who are these people? In her provocative program notes, Production Dramaturg Michelle Hall posits that they are inspired by real-life explorers Mary Kingsley, Alexandra David-Neel and Fanny Bullock Workmen, who “fled across the world from the rigid gender rules of Victorian society.” But the Mary (Laiona Michelle), Alex (Susan Bennett) and Fanny (Molly Wright Stuart) who populate this play are no proto-feminists. At the outset of their explorations, they wear costumes so ornate and rococo as to be the equivalent of Chinese foot-binding. They chatter about the propriety of wearing trousers and about the menu at the Explorer’s Club. They chop through the dense and fetid underbrush with their umbrellas. Alex describes how she used her umbrella to prod a hippopotamus and a crocodile – two of the most dangerous jungle animals ever. (Scholars believe that they were the “behemoth” and the “leviathan” referred to in the Book of Job. Had she ever done such a thing, of course, there would have been only two explorers in On the Verge.) They are, in short, ineffably cute.
But: you may say I’m being too literal, that I’m imposing terms of strict realism on what should properly be considered comic whimsy. Indeed, some critics have compared Overmyer to Tom Stoppard and Carol Churchill for wordplay, startling imagery, and inspired displays of wit.
Alas, on the evidence of this play, the comparison does not hold. Overmyer uses a lot of words, but he doesn’t use them as purposefully, or as skillfully, as Stoppard or Churchill. The explorers discover an eggbeater and speculate on its use. “It’s a bicycle for marsupials!” Mary says brightly. It’s almost funny – if marsupial meant the same thing as tiny cute animal it would have been funny – but it doesn’t, and it’s not. A marsupial is distinguished for it pouch, not its size. A kangaroo is a marsupial, and it wouldn’t be caught dead driving an eggbeater.
Here’s another way Overmyer differs from Stoppard or Churchill. Research a Stoppard or Churchill play and you discover that the playwright has been there before you. You learn how meticulously the work is constructed. But researching On the Verge makes it fray even further. Rotary eggbeaters were first patented in 1856; by 1888 most people would have been familiar with their function.
The play is everywhere full of odd quirks and dead ends. “I feel refurbished!” exudes Alex. “No! I feel refreshed! Not refurbished!” It is one of a series of inexplicable word substitutions she makes throughout the play. There is nothing amusing about them, except that they are wrong, and they do not illuminate her character, which is otherwise cogent and sensible.
The explorers stumble into their future, periodically amazing themselves by hiccupping words not yet invented in their own time. (Alex seems particularly enchanted by the word “dirigible”). They fall upon an “I Like Ike” button and decide that they must meet a man who would inspire a political button. A New York Times from 1974 drops out of the sky, inspiring cheap – and now quite dated – jokes about Richard Nixon. (Could you imagine Stoppard trying to garner laughs by comparing the disgraced ex-President to an orangutan?) The phrase “the future is now” is said so many times that I expected the late George Allen to walk onstage, flanked perhaps by Sonny Jurgensen and Ron McDole. The explorers get into a snowball fight with a baby Yeti. And so on.
In the second Act, they moor in 1955, sort-of meet the fabled Ike, fall in love with Capri pants, commercial jingles and the other gee-haws of that placid time. There are a series of fish-out-of-water jokes, none of which I remember now, two days after having seen the play.
It is painful watching skilled artists in the service of such a misconceived script. Much of the dialogue is little more than serial orations, and the actors thus confront the same challenges as they do in performing the works of the ancient Greeks. Bennett gets the worst of it: she is given so many verbal ticks that she sometimes sounds like a mechanical bird. There are only a few moments where the actors are permitted genuine human interactions, both involving Stuart and Tom Beckett (who plays multiple characters). They nail those moments, giving us a glimpse of what the play could have been like had Overmyer paid more attention to the human meaning of his work.
Director Thompson, in a podcast interview with dctheatrereviews said that he looked forward to telling this story in the round (previous productions at Westport were on a proscenium stage). Surprisingly for such a linear story – it is literally the tale of people marching from one side of the stage to the other – Thompson pulls it off. Assisted by Arena’s famously capable technical staff, as well as Lighting Designer Robert Wierzel and Sound Designer Fabian Obispo, Thompson’s staging wrings all that can possibly be wrought from this difficult text. In another good decision, Thompson apparently decided to eliminate the recorded voice of Christopher Plummer, which had been scheduled to announce titles to the play’s scenes. The play requires great concentration to follow, and Plummer’s mellow tones would have made the audiences’ task that much harder.
I am aware that other reviewers, men and women whose opinions I respect, have seen the play and have a different, and higher, opinion of it than I do. In a way, I hope they’re right and I’m wrong. Arena has done much for theater in Washington and deserves success. But somehow I suspect I’m not wrong, and that this emperor, unlike our three explorers, is seriously underdressed.
On the Verge or The Geography of Yearning runs Tuesdays through Sundays until June 11 at the Fichandler. Thursdays and Fridays are at 8; Saturdays are at 2 and 8; Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays are at 7.30 with the following exceptions: Tuesday, May 16 is at noon and Sunday, May 21 is at 6 pm. There will be additional shows on Wednesday, May 24 (noon), Sunday, June 4 (2) and Sunday, June 11 (2). Tuesday and Wednesday matinees are $46 for orchestra and $41 for box seats; Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday evening shows are $50 for orchestra and $45 for box seats; Saturday and Sunday matinees are $55 for orchestra and $50 for box seats; and Saturday and Sunday evenings are $60 for orchestra and $55 for box seats. You may obtain tickets by calling 202.488.3300 or at the website, www.arenastage.org.