Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Speaking Well of The Dead" & "The Crazy Girl"

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note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Larry Stark

"Speaking Well of The Dead"
"The Crazy Girl"

Both Directed by David Wheeler

Original Music by Barry Wyner
Set Design by Jeremy Barnett
Light Design by Jeff Benish
Costume Design by Molly Trainer
Production Manager/Technical Director Gwenmarie Ewing
Stage Manager Nicole Jesson

The two plays at the Gloucester Stage Company this week (and unfortunately their final week) are by a pair of playwrights who lived close enough to the twin towers to smell smoke for weeks after 9-11. Their response to this disaster was to write two short plays for the same three actors --- Jill Clayburgh and Joe Pacheco playing the parents, their daughter played by Lily Rabe (who happens to be Clayburgh's daughter). The plays are very different --- Horovitz' an inward journey with weighty, eloquent subtext underscoring every pause; Pugliese's a manic examination of the prevalence of violence throughout the world and a hysterical need for pinpointing ultimate guilt.The plays were directed by Boston's own David Wheeler, with hauntingly beautiful incidental music by Barry Wyner. On Gloucester's intimate thrust-stage the plays, particularly the first, allow the authors and perhaps the audience a chance to live past shock and pain and, perhaps, to begin to heal. [NOTE: I will go into some detail about the plays, so people planning to see them might better wait till they've done so before reading further.]

"Speaking Well of The Dead"

by Israel Horovitz

Penelope................Jill Clayburgh
Willa........................Lily Rabe
John.......................Joe Pacheco

This play has the smoothly subtle, intimately insightful flavor of a New Yorker Magazine short-story. In her memorial eulogy (once they find his dad's pocket-watch, and so identify the father's remains) his daughter admits he was an imperfect man. The subtext of this scene (from the middle of the play), however, refers to a fact the audience knows --- that he intended to leave his wife for a younger woman in his World Trade Center office, but 9-11 came first. This is spelled out in two scenes set in the tower-top restaurant when he tells first his daughter and then his wife about his intentions, though both parents are mainly concerned that the actual break-up should not ruin their daughter's final year of college. Thus both women believe the other knows nothing of his plans --- and so the delicate dance around the unmentionable.

There is talk between these two of Mother's aimless inability to move on, her habit of talking to what her mind projects as him speaking as from a mildly pleasant heaven. Horovitz is quite careful to make of this figure only what the living might expect him to be, so that the daughter's one conversation with him differs subtly from the rest. By the end of the play, what each woman knows and doesn't know colors every word they utter.

"The Crazy Girl"

by Frank Pugliese

Stacy....................Jill Clayburgh
Jeannie.......................Lily Rabe
Larry.......................Joe Pacheco

Pugliese deals here with the paranoia, personal and national, that the 9-11 disaster unleashed. At its center is, again, a college-age daughter so obsessed with the pain, brutality and injustice everywhere in the world she halucinates additional "news broadcasts" of fresh atrocities, listens 24/7 to news radio, and repeatedly bursts into rants in which she rages at American guilt for Palestinian and Afghan and Israeli woman huddling their children under sheets waiting helplessly for bombs to fall from a guilty God's sky. It's established that the neurosis had been controlled, until the destruction of the towers confirmed her skewed vision of reality and she went off medication. And it doesn't help, of course, that her parents have separated and argue themselves about how to deal with her madness, and about what each of them might have done either to cause, or to alleviate the situation.

About the players

It should be a snap for Lily Rabe to portray the daughter of her real mother in these two plays --- at her own characters' approximate age --- and that is certainly apparent in the first, the quieter of these two plays. The ensemble feel of this delicately nuanced meditation shows all three actors at their best. Problems arise, though, when Frank Pugliese's "The Crazy Girl" turns out to be a play about rage.

In the actress' bio there's a note that she acted in one of her father David Rabe's plays in a "beefit for the Northwestern Center for Mental Health" and so I will speculate on the possibility that Lily Rabe's over-the-top full-voice hysterics may have stemmed from observation. In my opinion, though, such real-world truth doesn't work theatrically. The outbursts and long, repetitious, and punctuated repeatedly by both parents' demands to "please stop this" --- yet their only real reaction is to crank their own volume to the fullest merely to be heard. Both women rise to the limits of voice and emotion in the first five or ten minutes of an hour-long play, and that leaves them, literally, nowhere else to go.

As I heard the play, the chillingly honest outrage at a God that could permit such mayhem and at a dominant world power indifferent to the consequences of its blunders made a lot of sense --- and, I think, would have made a much more telling effect delivered in an icy, unstoppable monotone. Someone --- and Director David Wheeler would be the most likely --- has allowed this excellent young actress to reach an emotional peak much too high and much too soon, even to the point of putting her vocal equipment in danger. At least, that's my advice.

Jill Clayburgh has no such problems. And she exhibits none of the difficulties many film and television stars experience when returning to the live stage. I think I remember her doing "Dutchman" for Michael Murray at The Charles Playhouse, and Desdemona at Stratford Connecticut (I hope those are correct!), and some thirty years later she still knows how to play to an audience rather than a lens and a boom-mike, and how to be heard (and, more importantly, to be understood) from the last row. The chemistry in that first play is sublime.

It falls to Joe Pacheco to play support for these two women and, as on the ballet stage, his work when at its finest doesn't stand out. In the first play, his fatherly annoyance when both daughter and then mother fling "fuckings" and "fucks" into their outraged reactions when told he's ruining a marriage, defined his "imperfect" character. In the second play, he had to rush late into the conversation and try, inefectually, to take control. The part is somewhat under-written, and the necessity of acting at full-voice (almost in self-defense!) gives him little room to maneuver.

Finally, let me compliment these two playwrights on their decision to react artistically to our national tragedy rather than locking their typewriters away with their grief. I think both plays are outstanding in that they work both as plays and as attempts to make some emotional sense out of it all. But, frankly, I hope people see a much more muted, seething rather than boiling-over performance of "The Crazy Girl" next week-end than I did last night, because both plays are worth the trip to Cape Ann.


"Speaking Well of The Dead" & "Crazy Girl" (17 July - 4 August)
267 East Main Street, GLOUCESTER MA
1(978) 281-4433

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide