By John Byrne
Produced by Scena Theatre
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Jason Stiles as F. S. McDade (Photo: Ian C. Armstrong)
If there is any justice in this world, they will assemble those involved with this production after its close, for special awards. To Jim Jorgensen would go the Order of the Golden Foam-Rubber Masque, commemorating the exceptionally broad range of reactions he could conjure up to what was essentially the same joke, and the agility with which he employed them. Jason Stiles would receive the Unhappy Dog Award, with Oak Clusters, for his consistent and seemingly effortless portrayal of a man who manages to be melancholy and clueless for an hour and forty-five minutes. To the redoubtable Jay Hardee would go the Holographic Phone Book, which any actor who performs bad material with intensity and verve receives (Anthony Hopkins has 8 of them). And Director Kathleen Akerley would get a crystalline watch with a nanosecond hand, commemorating the astonishing comic timing with which she has imbued this tedious material.
Really, seldom has such excellent comic talent been engaged on behalf of such a lousy play. Writer’s Cramp is a mock BBC-type documentary about the Scottish artist Francis Seneca McDade (Stiles), a bad novelist, terrible poet and worse painter. Had it been the story’s conceit that McDade, despite his utter lack of talent, rose to a position high in the British artistic firmament, it might have been a sort of literary Being There, or perhaps amusing, in the way the Christopher Guest movies are. Instead, society recognizes McDade for the hack he is, and he is unable to support his faithless wife or his sullen child with his meager earnings.
So what’s the point? McDade’s art is not horrible in any sort of spectacular or illuminating way. It’s just bad. His novels – Jorgensen is reading the interminable Feet of Clay at the top of the play –are a porridge of bland adjectives, punctuated periodically with unmotivated explosions of phony emotion. His poems are incomprehensible; one knows instinctively that trying to decipher them wouldn’t be worth the effort. His breakthrough painting – a pantsless Jesus reclining on a beach – resembles nothing so much as a portrait of the hairy organist who used to open The Monty Python Show, after a three-day bender.
Jim Jorgensen and Jason Stiles (Photo: Ian C. Armstrong
McDade’s life is as inexplicable as his art. At some point during the WWII, he is hauled off to the calaboose because the Brits have discovered that his real father was German (or Dutch, actually, having come from The Hague). Of course, the English never imprisoned people for having German ancestors; if they had, they would have had to start with HM George IV. McDade marries a woman out of the blue; she immediately steps out on him; and later departs for no reason stronger than the author’s desire to move to another part of the play. McDade has his fifteen minutes of fame as a painter; we are given no clue as to the reasons for his rise, and the cause of his fall is only hinted at in the vaguest way. Finally, without warning, he dies, signifying the end of the show.
There are some funny scenes, which I think frankly owe more to Akerley’s staging than to the script. Hardee acts out McDade’s heroic war diaries while McDade hides under the table wearing a gas mask. McDade gets carried away with the passion in one of his own manuscripts, thus putting it in jeopardy. And so on. There is a running gag about the impecunious McDade’s efforts to get people to give him money. A Scot who values money! How original!
It is a remarkable thing to see such skilled performers labor so hard upon such lame material. Hardee is absolutely hilarious as he performs McDade’s awful prose and dreadful verse as though he were
Gielgud doing The Iliad. Jorgensen plays the documentary’s pretentious host, one of McDade’s precious, affected schoolchums, and McDade’s mother with great verve; watching him silently grimace through a passage of Feet of Clay – he is either reacting to the novel or cleaning his teeth with his lips – is in itself almost worth the price of admission. Stiles as the documentary’s subject has the most thankless task. McDade is essentially a dim fellow, and pretty much a one-trick pony. He does bad art. Stiles soldiers on nonetheless, and there is a moment – where McDade asks for money because he really needs it, and not out of general avariciousness – in which he manages to make McDade genuinely affecting.
One day I hope to watch these fine actors – joined, perhaps, by the excellent Director Akerley – in the service of a funny play. In the meantime, Writer’s Cramp will have to do.
(Running time: approx. 1:45 with 1 intermission) Writer’s Cramp continues at The Warehouse (1021 7th Street NW, Washington) Thursdays through Saturdays until April 8. Tickets are $25-$32, and you may purchase them at www.scenatheatre.org or at 703.683.2824