I bring you my first double header, as play after play opens off Broadway, courtesy of the dozen not-for-profit theatres that have firmly established themselves.
LOST LAKE by David Auburn
Lost Lake caught my attention at the Manhattan Theatre Club because it’s written by David Auburn, whose Proof won him the Pulitzer Prize in 2001. Since then he’s delivered The Columnist which gave employment to John Lithgow for three months in 2012, an adaptation of The New York Idea in 2011 and a smattering of screenplays, some work for HBO, some short plays.
Proof and its film version and many subsequent Regional productions has bought him the time to build and enjoy a family life and to work only on projects that particularly interest him. I don’t know the genesis of Lost Lake, but the script was developed at the Eugene O’Neill Theater’s National Playwrights conferences in 2013. It was first staged at Daniel Sullivan’s Illinois Theatre in Urbane-Champaign, where Mr. Sullivan directed it. Clearly well pedigreed, I had high hopes when I attended this past Saturday matinee.
John Hawkes was signed on to play one of the two roles, and I knew him only from his very good work on the TV series “Deadwood”. Tracie Thoms completes the cast in this two-hander, and I remembered her from Stick Fly, and knew that she was a graduate of the Juilliard Drama Division. Daniel Sullivan directed again, and he’s among the best working today. For 16 years, until 1997 he was artistic director of Seattle Rep where he contributed mightily to the nation’s bountiful supply of good plays. Proof, Glengarry Glen Ross, Good People, Rabbit Hole, Sight Unseen, Orphans, I’m Not Rappaport were among the many he shepherded to success in Seattle and elsewhere.
Lost Lake is a small play, figuratively and literally. A city girl is the only one who answered an ad for the rental of a small cabin for a one-week vacation and we meet her as she is being interviewed by Hogan, who owns it. John Hawkes plays Hogan, a loner who has made nothing but wrong choices in his life. The play is in one act, with its three scenes covering the interview, the week she spends at the cottage, and the fall when she comes back one more time. Brilliantly played by Mr. Hawkes, Hogan is believable and real but it’s difficult to empathize with him. Reference is made to his brother and sister-in-law, for whom he has no use (seemingly because they, unlike him, have made all the right choices), yet when he moves out for the week of the rental, he moves in with them. He is the kind of relative one is glad not to have in one’s own family. Veronica, the young woman, has two children to care for, as her husband died. She has a good job in nursing, but has lied about her credentials and will eventually lose that job when the lie is exposed.
The ninety minutes it takes to tell this story only manages to let us know who its two characters are. When revelations are made, it’s clear why they draw these two closer together, but the completely separate tracks on which their lives are running make any kind of permanent relationship unfeasible. In the end, after both have expressed what they would like their futures to resemble, the conclusion Mr. Auburn reaches is the correct one. But it leaves us wondering why he thought an audience would be engrossed or involved enough to want to spend 90 minutes with these two unfortunate victims of their own inability to turn themselves around before it’s too late. Auburn’s ear is well tuned to the words these two sad creations would utter, and I found myself interested throughout, but in the end I felt I’d been witnessing a tire slowly releasing air as it responded to a puncture that was destined to leave it flat.
Lost Lake is playing thru Dec 21, 2014 at New York City Center, 131 W 55th St (btwn 6th & 7th)
New York, NY 10019
Details and tickets
BILLY & RAY
The second play I covered this past week was at the Vineyard Theatre on E. 15th Street, another not-for-profit with a healthy list of subscribers and supporters, which make it possible to present three or four new plays or small musicals each season. Billy & Ray is presented “by special arrangement with Nice Productions.” It was originally produced by the Falcon Theatre in Burbank, California by a consortium of producers including Garry Marshall, who directed it. I suspect an offer was made that the Vineyard could not refuse, which might explain how the play ended up in a New York venue that is usually connected to more startling works. To use its own words, the Vineyard “has consistently premiered provocative, groundbreaking works by both new and established writers.” Notable premieres include Kander and Ebb’s The Scottsboro Boys, Nicky Silver’s The Lyons, Whitty, Lopez and Marx’s Avenue Q, Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive, and Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women.
Garry Marshall is a veteran writer, director and producer of film and television and he has created some of TV’s most beloved sitcoms, including “Happy Days”, “Laverne and Shirley”, “Mork and Mindy” and “The Odd Couple”. They were all entertaining, and deserving of the long runs they enjoyed. But like so many who have proven themselves masters in their own fields, be they sitcom producers, exclusively screen writers, or pop song writers and rock’n rollers, so many are determined to taste the particular wine of Broadway or its offspring, Off Broadway (from which many plays and musicals including most of the above, have moved to the Main Stem). It’s not always a good idea, this mixing and matching. In the case of Billy & Ray there are problems.
For starters, this is an original by Mike Bencivenga, which pretends to be a behind-the-scenes account of what went on in the private office of Billy Wilder at Paramount during the months of prep work on what ultimately turned out the be the brilliant film “Double Indemnity.” In the play, Wilder spends this time trying to work out a collaboration between himself and Raymond Chandler to turn James Cain’s lurid novel into a screenplay that will be acceptable to the Production Code that was strictly in control of what went on the screens of America in the 1940s. The first of two acts is set in the summer of 1943; the second act covers the year between July 1943 and the following July, 1944. It doesn’t seem to be based on anything but hearsay and the occasional quote from a Hollywood gossip column of the day.
There are phone calls to Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson that each take a minute or two, but seem to suffice to get these three megastars to agree to appear in the movie before it is written, or at least to eagerly consider it. Vincent Kartheiser (who has played the young advertising executive on the make in “Mad Men” for all of its many seasons) is now dressed in sleeveless sweaters and high rise slacks that indicate Hollywood casual as he adds a Viennese accent(“not German,”) to his arsenal of acting tools, to give us his view of Billy Wilder, the refugee from Nazi Germany who is on the rise as the famous Wilder, an inventive and powerful film director/writer. He’s just come off a battle with his writing partner Charles Brackett and for the moment they are not speaking, so the studio comes up with Raymond Chandler who is a crime fiction novelist featuring the detective Philip Marlowe, and the play is intended to show us what really went on as these two major Hollywood icons battled it out for fourteen months, occasionally refereed and defused by Wilder’s secretary Helen Hernandez and Studio intermediary and wannabe big producer Joe Sistrom . Chandler is played by veteran stage actor Larry Pine, who was last with us in Casa Valentina, Sophie Von Haselberg does a fine crisp job with Helen, and Drew Gehlin brings welcome low comedy and high energy to the aspiring movie mogul role.
The problems lie in the lack of dimension in the writing of any of the characters. We know little about any of their offstage lives, so they become characters in a sitcom, not complex figures living in a pressured world where every day could bring doom and disaster. The one who suffers most from this is Larry Pine, who can’t seem to find anything in the writing of Chandler to give him something to play. Yes, we are told there is a wife offstage, yes he drinks secretly from a bottle in his briefcase, but who is he?
He seems unhappy from the moment he enters unannounced, and he remains so throughout the play. He seems to take no joy in his work, has no sense of humor. Yet Chandler was known for his wit, and quotes from his books have been published ad infinitum. One example: “She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket.” Another: “A good story cannot be devised. It has to be distilled.” The Raymond Chandler that Mr. Bencivenga has put on the pages of the play gives no indication he could ever write those words. Yet they are just what Billy Wilder wants from Chandler — for Wilder has ideas all the time, but as English is not his first language, he has trouble finding the colloquialisms that would bring his characters to life, that locate them for an audience.
Mr. Pine does not have a character to play; as a result he only rarely reaches us. Mr. Kartheiser is at ease onstage, and his Billy Wilder is a fun guy, but the darkness beneath, the girl chasing genius who seems always to be on the run from something frightening, so clearly woven into his best films, Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, The Apartment, Some Like it Hot to name a few, is nowhere in the writing of the character, nor in the performance of it.
Oddly enough, it’s the two minor characters who are at least recognizable. Helen is not the most original secretary ever written, but she is perfectly believable as played by Ms. Von Haselberg, zipping around the office being useful, perfectly content to be an unemancipated lady with a fun job. Wilder knows he needs her, so he treats her with only superficial macho man stuff, and she rather likes it. Helen is a likable character to be around. And Mr. Gehling’s Joe is a fast talking idiot who seems to have just the right stuff to make it in the war zone in Hollywood that can make you CEO one year, and retiree the next.
Mr. Marshall has kept the whole thing flowing nicely, but frankly it all adds up to a pilot for a TV series that is going to run out of steam by the second episode.
Billy & Ray is playing thru Nov 20, 2014 at The Vinyard Theatre, 108 East 15th St
New York, NY 10003
Details and tickets