note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth
Jon Lipsky was a brilliant playwright and professor whose works graced many stages. Unfortunately, his latest work, “Walking the Volcano,” a series of eight brief plays that focuses on unhappy couples, adds little to his legacy.
Lipsky died March 19, at the age of 66, but had collaborated at his home on Martha’s Vineyard with Boston University (BU) colleague Elaine Vaan Hogue, who recently delighted audiences with her portrayal in BU Playwrights Theatre’s “The Road to Mecca”.
Playwrights Theatre at Boston University and Boston Center for American Performance collaborated in “Volcano” to celebrate Lipsky’s professorship with the College of Fine Arts at BU. The play had premiered in the Vineyard Playhouse in 2009.
Boston favorite actors Gabriel Kuttner and Paula Langton, along with BU student Jess Moss and Connecticut actor Brian Vaughan, deliver compelling performances in multiple roles. However, each play’s structure devolves into sameness.
The actors are always on stage, acting as wallpaper when they’re not performing, or readying for their stint in the spotlight. Nevertheless, there are gaps between the plays, separated by music representative of each play’s era.
In “Flying Above the Clouds,” Vaughan portrays a lecherous Fulbright Scholar, who’s smuggling exotic animals into the country illegally, and tries to seduce a young, impulsive daughter of an American diplomat (Moss) in a 747 bathroom, flying over the Pacific. In “The Wake Up Call,” Vaughan is a wartime journalist during the Tet Offensive, whose photographer girlfriend (Moss) is determined to go to the Front with him.
The house lights brighten as the two actors argue explosively during a drug-fueled music audition in “Girl in the Basement”. The couple then become former lovers, meeting in Saratoga, in “The Mistake”.
Langton and Kuttner powerfully portray a husband-wife actress-director in “After the Apocalypse,” in which he tries to convince her to star in a new film, after her nervous breakdown and shaky recuperation.
During New Year’s Eve at Y2K, they’re two people cuddling, watching fireworks. He wants to embark on a world sail - with their son - but she wants to remain home and embrace a life of stability, in “Belly of the Whale”.
Kuttner beats the drum slowly, when his wife’s daughter (Moss) comes home from Brooklyn - 3,000 miles away - for a visit. His wife, a former dancer, is in someplace exotic, delivering babies, in “The Drum”.
The dramatic snippets end with Langton portraying “Betty Bookstore,” a.k.a. Ruth, a woman dying of cancer, and Kuttner as her lover, Saul, who visits her in the hospital, seeking forgiveness for unknown past acts in “Last Rites”.
Vaan Hogue said, “I remember Jon [Lipsky] saying that as we journey with the characters in “Walking the Volcano,” it becomes very clear that it is very difficult to be tender in a world that is antagonistic toward tenderness.” As we walk the rim of the volcano with them, though, we wonder if it’s worth the risk.