Misery the Scrivener

Game, set, match: Guthrie actors cover the court...er...the stage, in Merrily We Roll Along

This past Saturday I found a strange flier stapled to a pole outside the Minneapolis Theatre Garage. Hand scrawled in black pen, entirely capitalized and occasionally underlined to emphasize its bewildering point, the broadside read, "I am pissed!! I believe you have taken soul from the tribe! I want it all back now! Leave it at my patio door!"

I don't know what this flier means, so I have been pretending that the Eye of the Storm Theatre has been inspired by guerilla marketing to print this notice to promote their new show, Collected Stories. How very Fluxus of them.

Donald Margulies's play comes to the Twin Cities with bells and whistles to announce itself. It had several runs in New York, all celebrated, one starring the redoubtable Uta Hagen, and the play was a runner-up for a Pulitzer Prize. The New York Times, no less, called the play a "powerhouse," according to the Eye of the Storm promotional material. Powerhouse. I suspect the original review in the Gray Lady was longer than one word, but it's an evocative word, and one word from the Times can carry a lot of weight.

In fact, the Times makes a cameo in the play in the form of an extended review--a critique of a first collection of short stories by a young writer named Lisa Morrison, played here by Larissa Paige Kokernot. This actor, a regular in Eye of the Storm productions, has a knack for expressing the neurotic moment, and Lisa Morrison, a trembling wreck of a young woman, sometimes seems to be nothing but a series of neurotic moments. In this scene, for example, Kokernot waits nervously in the doorway of her mentor, a feisty and sharp-tongued author named Ruth Steiner (Shirley Venard) as Steiner reads aloud highlights from the review in the Times.

While the word "powerhouse" is nowhere to be found, the review is nonetheless ebullient. Yet Kokernot responds as though listening to its words read aloud were some sort of sinister torture. She winces, visibly frets, and finally detonates into a pained monologue. Her experiences in life are meager, she explains, and what will be expected now, after this review? A novel! And where will she find the material for such a novel?

Her solution is to steal a story from Steiner's life, a painful recounting of the older author's youthful affair with the mad poet Delmore Schwartz. Venard plays Steiner as a woman with a tendency to quietly and comically grouse about foolish or thoughtless behavior, but upon her discovery that her life has been ransacked and turned into a novel, she moves from grousing to roaring. Confronting Kokernot, Venard points a quavering finger at the younger woman and cries out, "I am pissed!! I believe you have taken soul from the tribe! I want it all back now!" Or words to that effect.

This is the second play I have seen in two years that makes drama out of ethical crises in the literary world, the first being Bee Luther Hatchee at the Mixed Blood, and while I don't know that two plays constitute the start of a genre, if they do, it's a good start. Both scripts were inspired by actual literary legal battles. These cases play out as so much legal mumbo-jumbo in the courts, but rarely address the roiling emotions that lead to litigation--in this instance, the sense of a profound betrayal of trust. It's good, smart meat for drama, and Margulies wisely leaves the drama unresolved, refusing to side with either of his characters as they make their impassioned cases to each other in Steiner's small apartment.

Through this standoff, Margulies argues that writing is a risky enterprise--risky, because if a writer is honest, she will eventually hurt someone. Margulies then shows us what that looks like, and it ain't pretty. But there it is.


And I sympathize, because now I must make a few comments about Merrily We Roll Along, currently playing at the Guthrie Lab, and if my comments are to be honest, they cannot be nice. As I've noted before in this space, I am not really a fan of Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the music and lyrics to this interminable musical. I have always found his music precious and showy, the sort of stuff people at band camp listen to in order to demonstrate their musical sophistication.

Merrily winds backward in time through the life of a self-absorbed musical composer (played here by Ken Barnett, looking vaguely queasy) as he makes a series of career choices that will leave him rich but unhappy. (And though Merrily is based on a play by Kaufman and Hart, I can't help but read Sondheim into the treatment, particularly since, in the book by George Furth, so little of Kaufman and Hart's scathing wit remains). To which I want to say, Oh, go cry in your checkbook! Few things draw less sympathy from me than the petty complaints of the very wealthy.

This production is directed by John Miller-Stephany in what I can only describe as a sports-match mode: The action is set lengthwise across the center of the Lab, with the audience watching from bleachers on both sides of the action. And so they swivel their heads, watching the cast as they arch their elbows and shoulders in an approximation of a dance scene on one end of the stage, then turning to observe the other end of the room where other actors sing an unhappy ballad. Were I to have lobbed a tennis ball into the center of the action, I feel certain a ball retriever would have emerged from a crouch offstage to scamper after it.

This means that many of the play's performances are lost in the staging, as we desperately search the performing area, uncertain whom to look at. A pity, too, as the production features a number of local actors (Bob Beverage, Adena Brumer, Steve Hendrickson, Jim Lichtscheidl), all of whom are quite good, and none of whom get to show off as they should. Well, Lichtscheidl does. He's got a very funny scene in which he babbles angrily at Barnett during a television interview, and Lichtscheidl gets the moment just right: Petty, jealous, and unsparingly funny, almost as though he were in a Kaufman and Hart play.

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