I’ll get to the Stoppard play in a minute, but right now let’s focus on what’s really important for Washington theater: Kathleen Akerley’s The Oogatz Man. Washington deserves to develop its own authentic theatrical voice, as Chicago and other great theater towns have done. But it will not happen unless Washington theater companies take up the cudgel themselves. Washington playwrights sometimes get produced by their own companies: Longacre Lea is performing Akerley’s work; Quotidian has done a play of Steve LaRocque’s; and Charter regularly produces the work of the artists who work with that company. But outside of the versatile and impressively gifted Karen Zacharias, Washington playwrights have not felt the embrace of the Washington theater community as a whole.
That should end right now, and it should end with The Oogatz Man, a one-act which is better than sixty percent of the eighty-four non-fringe plays I saw in Washington this year. Let me put it to you bluntly: Arena, Studio, Woolly, Round House and other major theaters should be staging Akerley plays, including, especially, this one.
Here’s why: The Oogatz Man combines Stoppardarian wit with magical realism to create a story about love in the face of alienation which is at once so subtle, so sophisticated, so adult that it will be impossible for you to leave the theater without being wiser than you were when you walked in. Thomas (Eric Messner) has invited his girlfriend Kelly (Heather Haney) to dinner at his apartment for the express purpose of breaking up with her. His problem is that he doesn’t know why. Kelly is beautiful and intelligent. She obviously loves him. She’s funny, she’s accommodating, and she’s exceptionally tolerant of his eccentric behaviors. He cannot understand why he is ending the relationship but he knows that he must.
So he decides – and this decision is all we need to know in order to understand Thomas – that he must have the perfect music with which to break up with Kelly. But this music is on his Metallica “…And Justice for All” CD, which is busted, and so – with Kelly in the apartment sipping a beer and reading the novel which Thomas is writing – he goes on a quest for a replacement CD with the ferocity of Jason seeking the Golden Fleece. He sails through the twisted hallways of his bizarre apartment building, where he encounters a headbanger (Michael Glenn) whose entire world is encapsulated in his headphones (when he takes them off briefly, the sound that comes out of them is earsplittingly loud), a maintenance man (Jason Lott) with the magic power to create doorways and make them disappear (when he makes the door to Thomas’ apartment disappear, Thomas’ effort to return home casts him briefly into a world of static), the aged chatterbox Mr. Vaughn (Michael John Casey), and Ms. Cruz (Abby Wood), an imperiously self-confident woman who appears to be fishing with a banister post in a lake in the middle of her apartment (she lands one, too).
Since the media under discussion is a Metallica CD, and since Kelly appears to enjoy music too, it is not immediately apparent that this is a play about the disconnect between those who are in the thrall of art and those who do not respond to it. But it is. To listen to Thomas explain how the opening movements to Metallica’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” encapsulate the psychology of futility is to see a man in love – with the rapture he feels when art transports him to a place of higher understanding. And to watch Kelly’s face as Thomas (or, actually, Ms. Cruz, who inhabits Thomas’ body to say the things he doesn’t have the nerve to say himself) plays those opening movements on his CD is to watch someone who is anesthetic to art. As she looks away from Thomas, we see her face fill with incomprehension, boredom and embarrassment. Perhaps this has happened to you, as you have tried to explain a beloved piece of art to someone important to you. In the meantime, Thomas’ brothers in artistic rapture – his buddy Ryan (Tom Carman), the maintenance man, the headbanger, Mr. Vaughn, even Thomas himself, now inhabiting the body of Ms. Cruz’s boyfriend, give themselves over to the music, and writhe in time to Metallica’s clockwork rhythm.
In a Disney-style play, Kelly would find enlightenment, or the couple would find love in the arms of more compatible partners, or there would be another deus ex machina. But Akerley is no more willing to stint on realism than she is on magic, and we learn, through Messner’s and Haney’s persuasive characterizations, that the most important things which people share in relationships is not responsiveness to art but love, respect and good faith.
Aside from writing a superb play, Akerley shows off another advantage of having a local writer: she can write to her actors’ strengths. Casey and Wood, given a script which allows them to do what they do best, are terrific in this. Haney is also exceptionally strong. In addition, a play as focused on music as this one requires an excellent sound design. The Oogatz Man gets one, from Neil MacFadden.
After so powerful and compelling a story, Artist Descending a Staircase (one does, and it is not a pretty picture) is a bit of a letdown. Tom Stoppard’s play – witty, insightful, but a trifle overlong – is at bottom a melodrama, in which a blind woman (Haney) chooses the wrong artist (Daniel Vito Siefring) to be her lover. This artist, Beauchamp, and his buddies Martello (Glenn) and Donner (Richard Owens) celebrate her choice with the same feckless self-confidence with which they embrace their own careers. “Art is nothing to do with expertise; doing something well is no excuse for doing something expected,” Beauchamp twitters as the guns of the First War boom in the background, and the three artist-aspirants are giddy with the thought that they are living in an age where art is being reinvented, and thus is held to no critical standards. Beauchamp, at least, also holds himself to no moral standards, treating his beloved with less regard than, later in life, he treats his supply of orange marmalade.
By “later in life” I mean, specifically, in 1959. Beauchamp – now played by Lott – retains his unjustified sang-froid but the others are more sober men, In particular, Donner – now played by Messner – is tortured by his unrequited 40-years’ passion for Beauchamp’s long-departed blind mistress. Now living and working in a lofty garret with Beauchamp and Martello (Casey), Donner works furiously on a pastoral nude of the woman he loved. Heartbrokenly recalling her casual observation that, as a blind person, she could sit on the banks of the river and imagine the presence of a unicorn, Donner paints a unicorn in the background of his hyper-realistic picture.
Stoppard makes salient points about art and morality in this play, but I suspect he could have made the same points with more facility in an essay or a political pamphlet. By putting his arguments in the mouths of his characters, he periodically turns them into mouthpieces. This sometimes frustrates character development, particularly in the case of the younger Beauchamp.
But Akerley, who has directed several Stoppard productions in the past, and co-director Caitlin Smith redeem the text with spot-on line readings, economical stage movements and, in particular, exceptionally clever scene changes in which the generation of artists who are not appearing in the upcoming scene set the stage and pose the actors. This is all done with split-second timing, and is funny and provocative.
The best part of Artist Descending a Staircase is the opportunity it gives us to realize how good an actor Eric Messner is. Messner, who plays a man in his late twenties or early thirties in Oogatz Man, immediately transforms himself into someone in his mid-seventies in Artist, with minimal assistance from makeup. (He is given a head of grey hair). The transformation is utterly convincing, such that you in the audience, watching both plays, will be unable to tell whether he is closer to thirty or to seventy unless you know him.
The Longacre Lea doubleheader also gives us an early look at two excellent student actors, Owens (who bears a striking resemblance to Messner) and Carman. Both these actors, on stage with some of the Washington area’s best, more than hold their own. Gentlemen, I look forward to watching you on the Washington stage – for many years to come, I hope.
The Oogatz Man
By Kathleen Akerley
Directed by Akerley and Caitlin Smith
Artist Descending a Staircase
By Tom Stoppard
Directed by Akerley and Smith
Produced by Longacre Lea
reviewed by Tim Treanor