Flowers for Algernon
By David Rogers, based on a novel by Daniel Keyes
Directed by Matt Ripa
Produced by Landless Theatre Company
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
There are many things wrong with Landless Theatre Company’s production of Flowers for Algernon, but before we get to them let us celebrate the fine performance by Matt Baughman in the role of Charley Gordon. Charley, as you remember from the Cliff Robertson movie of the same name or from your high school reading, is a mentally retarded man who becomes the subject of an experimental surgery designed to radically increase his intellectual function. The experiment succeeds and Charley’s IQ soars from 68 to 185, but the change is not permanent, and his summer of light is filled with a wistful poignancy.
Flowers for Algernon is in part a meditation on the old adage, “if ignorance is bliss, ‘tis folly to be wise.” Charley’s blighted intellect fools him into believing that the world is sweet. As a result, he is sweet himself. He mistakes his cruel and mean-spirited co-workers for his friends; he forgets his mother’s fierce rejection of him and his father’s indifference; and he has complete trust in the scientists who want to cut open his brain. As he comes into his own intellectually, he realizes how heartlessly he has been treated and still is. He becomes bitter and mistrustful, and when he has a chance for true love with his former reading teacher (Lindsay Kitt Wiebe) he is so mistrustful – and so haunted by his past and future – that he hesitates, fatally.
This role is hard, complex work and Baughman gives it the performance it deserves. He walks away from every opportunity for cliché or stereotype, and instead gives us a carefully nuanced, subtle performance which manages to capture every element of the character – the childlike unselfconsciousness of the seriously impaired, the panicked awkwardness of someone who is suddenly able to express love for the first time, the mortification of a man coming face-to-face with his actions in his retarded state, the pain of memories revived, the wistfulness of someone seeing his intellect slipping behind him. It is an impressive performance, and Baughman’s powerful rendering of the character redeems several portions of a script which, had it been performed by a lesser actor, would have been, frankly, ridiculous.
Along with Baughman, Carol Randolph and Laura Quenzel do excellent work as Charley’s mother and sister, respectively, and there are some other good performances. Sam Cooper’s sound is good, too.
Now, the problems. Baughman’s performance is successful because he trusts the audience. He does not push or insist. Where he is dramatic – as he is several times – it is firmly based in the text, and justified by his previous, more subtle characterizations. Would be it that the playwright, and the director, followed Baughman’s example.
Keyes’ novel is written from Charley’s point of view, so that we discover the true nature of Charley’s life as Charley does. Rogers’ script, on the other hand, is full of obvious high-context dialogue, unnatural and sometimes accidentally hilarious. He frequently puts these lines in the mouths of the unfortunate actors who are playing the scientists – who are, for example, moved to tell each other that the Foundation which is funding the experiments is, indeed, paying for their costs. Rogers pads his script with similar moments, and they add up. The production weighs in at nearly three hours.
If Rogers’ script hammers us with events, designed to assure that even the most obtuse among us understands what’s going on, director Ripa hammers us with characterization, to make sure we know who the good guys and the bad guys are. Thus, for example, he has John-Paul Pizzica, as the Senior Researcher Nemur, put his feet on the table when he is interviewing Alice Kinnian, who has recommended Charley as a test subject. The obvious implication is that Nemur is condescending and arrogant, but Pizzica and Ripa make him look like a buffoon. The fact that Ripa places Pizzica at such an angle that it looks that his feet are about to fall off the table doesn’t help.
Ripa and Pizzica seem to forget a first principal of acting: an actor must love his character or else that character will not seem real to us. True, Nemur is condescending and arrogant, but he does not seem that way to himself, and to portray him successfully Pizzica must find the thought process within Nemur that allows him to act the way he does. Randolph finds this thought process as Charley’s mother and Quenzel does so as his sister. But Pizzica as Nemur never becomes a character. He is simply one big sneer. (Robert Lavery, as the other scientist, seemed to be fighting his lines the night I saw him. He left no strong impression otherwise.)
Ripa’s overeagerness to impress his character’s personalities upon us also makes bad use of Wiebe, Charley’s teacher who becomes his girlfriend. Wiebe shows great passion in the scenes in which she loves, and loses, Charley. Unfortunately, she shows the same passion when she takes Charley to the hospital at the opening of the play and when she answers the phone. Thus her passion seems not be an authentic feeling, growing out of her experience, but an emotional steady-state, having no more meaning than any other tic.
In addition to these artistic failings, the technical side of this production seemed unusually maladroit. Charley carries Algernon (the mouse who was the subject of an earlier intelligence-growth experiment) in a little tin without any air holes, which makes me wonder how successful the experiment on Charley had really been. He dictates his thoughts into a tape recorder but does not seem to notice that the tape is motionless. Sound cues are off. The cast seems unfamiliar with where things are backstage; on the night I saw the show they banged into objects with obvious (and audible) distress. And so on.
Landless, which usually goes for the ridiculous (the highly successful Bat Boy recently closed, and we have A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant and Debbie Does Dallas, the Musical to look forward to), tackles the sublime periodically. Notwithstanding Rogers’ clumsy script, (Rogers has a musical version of the play, too, with music by Charles Strouse), the thought and emotion behind Keyes’ wonderful little novel is sublime, and in those moments where this production is unforced and authentic, it is too.
(Running time: 2:45)
When: Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2 p.m., through November 18.
Where: Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint, 916 G Street NW, Washington.