REMEMBER THOSE deadly assignments in high-school English class? Write a poem in the voice of Holden Caulfield. Make up a conversation between Hamlet and Romeo. Those tasks always made me want to puke my fruit roll-ups and throw in a lot of swear words. The Catcher in the Rye is a swell book, and Holden said everything he needed to say. So did Hamlet and Romeo, for that matter. And while it may be an interesting writing exercise, that sort of endeavor is unlikely to produce anything better than, well, interesting writing exercises. Assign it to a bunch of super-decorated celebrity playwrights and the wank factor gets critical.
Of course, I say this now, luxuriating in the safety of hindsight, having witnessed yet another failed writing assignment in Love's Fire: Fresh Numbers by Seven American Playwrights, presented by the New York-based touring theater the Acting Company. To be honest, I actually had hopes for this show. But I'm starting to suspect that reciting the mantra, "At the very least it'll be interesting," before a show is as good as voodoo. I said the same thing before watching Four Rooms, Aria, and New York Stories--largely embarrassing films which, like Love's Fire, invited directors to create short works based on a unifying theme. The conceit here was to have the playwrights come up with 10-minute one-acts "inspired" by Shakespeare's sonnets. My hopes were based on the awesome collective talent of the writers: Eric Bogosian, William Finn, John Guare, Tony Kushner, Marsha Norman, Ntozake Shange, and Wendy Wasserstein. Apparently, though, the job is just as joyless for Pulitzer Prize winners as for high-school nobodies.
Only Bogosian and Kushner (and, to a lesser degree, Wasserstein) turn in pieces that don't feel like third drafts of works in progress, bless their hearts. They embrace the limitations of the one-act--which, by the way, is an incredibly difficult form. (That must have been especially trying for Kushner, who penned the pre-millennial epic Angels In America.) Best of all, these guys don't assume that you know the first thing about the sonnets they riffed on.
Bogosian's piece, "Bitter Sauce," grabs the audience right off the bat: A young woman in a cumulus wedding gown, veil, and black motorcycle boots sits on a red couch with a bottle of Jack Daniels between her legs. She's drunk, trying to get the goddamn dress off while cursing the cosmos for the weird, archaic sacrament she's going to receive tomorrow. Standing up and outstretching her arms to God, she shouts, "I am a womb being readied for impalement and fertilization!"
Turns out that this woman, Rengin (Heather Robison), has been screwing around on her fiancé, Herman (Daniel Pearce), with a biker dude named "Red." She's got some lame rationalizations for it--and this is where Sonnet 118 comes in: It's about the misguided superstitiousness people take on when love is too nice, rocking the boat or harboring little suspicions. Rengin's so madly in love with Herman that she's needed someone totally meaningless to keep her sanity intact. Whatever. As Bogosian points out, though, there's a parallel between the sonnet's neurosis and the perverse claustrophobia that a girl can feel when love turns into a socioeconomic contract. (Ever notice how "fiancé" looks a lot like "finance"?) In any case, Red shows up out of nowhere and gentle Herman has to figure out a way to get rid of him forever without getting his larynx ripped out.
Unlike much of the young cast, both Pearce and James Farmer (Red) are refreshingly unmannered--they let us see the characters, not the actors. And the play accomplishes the task at hand: It applies the spirit of the sonnet to compelling contemporary characters and it keeps us engaged. Unlike many of the skits, it also surprises us.
So does Kushner's piece, about the "breakup" between a female therapist and a pushy long-term client, a gay man who is horrified by anal sex ("poo-poo equals yuck!") and wants to sleep with her. Now that is a "fresh" idea--that is, I've never seen it onstage, onscreen, or on a page before. The same cannot be said of Shange's dance/spoken word piece, in which a man gets hot and bothered watching a woman dance. It's a mere fragment of an idea, not a play. Norman's piece is equally unmeaty: A series of people caress each other, then change partners, forming a physical chain of desire but revealing none of their inner lives nor the complexities of infidelity. But the biggest stinker is saved for last: Guare's wandering, endless experiment in which a group of students debates the meaning of two sonnets and then puts on a play inspired by them. It's got a couple intriguing ideas, but tries to encompass way too much for a one-act--Christ, Sheba, Buddha, death, Adam and Eve, on and on--and collapses in a sighing muddle.
I can't say who's to blame for this mess--director Mark Lamos or its mastermind, Anne Cattaneo--only that it proves some works need no tinkering or embellishment. Still, if we're determined to reinterpret Shakespeare, there's no point in doing it half-assed. As my friend pointed out, Shakespeare by himself is good enough. Love's Fire is just gilt on the lily.