Two attractive couples, conversation, alcohol, deep-seated unhappiness and betrayal abounding … nope, it isn’t Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? It’s Serenading Louie, being presented with quiet style at The American Century Theater. The sniping here is less vicious, the tension thick without the muffle…but there’s still a lot of Albee seen in playwright Lanford Wilson’s work. His writing holds much of the same poetic lushness, and both explores and exploits the human relationship with eloquence. There is a systematic and painful breakdown of the lives of four people here, and it’s keenly felt on all levels.
The setting is Chicago in the swinging ’70s, with two married coupleswhose relationship is unraveling even as the play begins. Faded high school football star Carl (Hans Dettmar) suspects that wife Mary (Vanessa Bradchulis) is cheating. Her biting words emasculate him even without the infidelity, yet she and their young daughter are his whole world. Their good friends Alex (Theodore M. Snead) and Gabby (Robin Covington) are also experiencing marital discord. Alex is an ambitious attorney with political aspirations and secrets, and Gabby is a once confident woman falling apart to learn those secrets. The four lives intermingle until one person is forced to face a reality with devastating consequences.
The standout here is Theodore M. Snead as Alex, the ambitious attorney married to sweet, slightly compulsive Gabby (Robin Covington). Snead’s Alex is at turns powerful, affable, and arrogant. His monologues are captivating, and the audience hung on his every word (and even his every non-word). He would have been equally skillful in the role of Carl…it would be interesting to see the roles reversed.
Hans Dettmar is uneven in his performance as Carl, a faded high school football star turned businessman. Dettmar has moments of brilliance, finding gritty nuances of real feeling in his monologues about how life has passed him by, recounting the story of a little girl fallen into a well as a nation held its breath, pointing out that people used to care about things. He builds a sympathetic character and hits all the right notes when he is quiet and contained. Unfortunately, at other moments, he goes over the top and becomes infantile in his anger, and the authenticity of his performance gets lost. He isn’t quite the right type physically for his former life, dressed and groomed to resemble a 70s era teacher rather than an aging athlete or successful businessman. All of that said, Dettmar’s performance is worth seeing. His rapport with Alex, his tenuous grasp on reality…it all makes for good theatre.
The women here are not given a lot of earth-shattering material…playwright Wilson lets his men shine instead. However, both Covington and Vanessa Bradchulis as Mary give solid, understated performances. Bradchulis delivers, in my humble opinion, the best line in a play full of wonderful lines…”I don’t know if I loved him then, but boy, do I love him then now.” It’s such a perfect example of the pitfalls couples face over time. How the grass is always greener on the other side, and how no one knows how life will turn out, especially when they are young, optimistic, and filled with hope for the future. It would have been nice to see a little more dynamic, a little more vibrance, from both actresses.
The silences employed between the actors are very effective, especially in the first exchange between Gabby and Alex. Alex’s lack of response to Gabby’s nervous monologue was deafening, and painful. Snead kept the focus on himself with his riveting presence without detracting from Covington’s words.
The staging (Steven Scott Mazzola) is excellent. The space in Theatre II isn’t easy, trying to play to two sides of the house, but the audience misses nothing with the unique blocking and natural movement here. There is only a moment of awkwardness right at the beginning, when Carl sits clumsily on the sofa with his shoes tucked under him…it feels a little forced.
Wilson’s play features some truly creative ideas. There are dreamy sequences with intermingled dialogue, cast members appearing where they might not otherwise be, and a balance that frequently keeps the audience off-kilter. The only real trouble spot is the ending…it felt too easy and a bit trite for what was otherwise flawless writing.
The space at Gunston Arts Center has been transformed into a beautiful sunken living room, complete with walls, reworked floor, hanging lamps, picture window, and a marvelous window seat. There’s real craftsmanship here thanks to the hard work of Deborah Wheatley (scenic designer) and Jason M. Beagle (Tech Director/Master Carpenter). At first, it was concerning when both couples treated the single space as their home with no differentiations made between the households. However, it became clear as the play progressed that this was a deliberate move on the part of the designer…to show that the house is just a house, and that the couples, with their trials and tribulations, were interchangeable. That problems exist in every household, and that the decorations and furnishings are merely things, and it’s what goes on and what is said that is important.
Frank Labovitz (Costume Design) does a satisfactory job with the 70s costumes, with a particularly warm and eye-catching palette in the second act. Property Design (Suzanne Maloney) is not quite as successful…there are small details here that could be re-worked to better suit this fine production.
The weakness of this particular production is in the lighting design of Andrew Griffin. The colors are beautiful, and the concept is appealing…but it’s just too dark. The ghost lights, the soft yellows casting a wan pallor on everyone beneath them combined with the oppressive heat of this 100 degree Virginia summer to sap the energy of both cast and audience. There were five people asleep…and that in no way was a reflection of the show. It’s long but not overly so, and there is nothing boring about these four people and the action happening onstage. Perhaps in another season, the ideas here would have been fantastic…certainly a lot of detail was given to the design. It just wasn’t a great combination given the heat factor and the crowd demographic. The audience especially deserved to see the expressive faces of the actors, and those faces were often lost in the darkness.
There is a visually stunning moment that involves Covington as Gabby, a diaphanous nightie, and spectacular backlighting. In context, it also garners a few laughs.
Serenading Louie is a seldom performed play that really needs to be seen…the glorious language, and the uncomfortable yet familiar realism in marriage that is showcased here deserves an audience. Great to see a full house on Saturday night…and hope that streak continues for the rest of the run.
by Lanford Wilson
Directed by Steven Scott Mazzola
Produced by The American Century Theater
Reviewed by McCall Noelle Doyle
Serenading Louie runs thru August 21, 2010.
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.