No Fear

Did these beauties drive Howard Hughes to ruin? Sam Shepard's Seduced

"This is like a twisted sitcom," the ticket seller at the Phoenix Playhouse said of their production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at a recent performance. "It won't be like the Elizabeth Taylor version. Three hours of nonstop fighting. Ugh!"

Indeed, this production brings to the stage Edward Albee's complete text, making clear that Ernest Lehman's 1964 screen adaptation excised much of the play's humor, leaving behind only the lethal doses of rage and hysteria. This production lacks no humor, but, sitcom analogy aside, the comedy that plays out between George and Martha--theater's most famously injurious couple--is black and bitter.

This play, detailing a night when the couple's nastiness finally ruins them, could belong to either George or Martha: Albee's script is protean enough to allow either to seize the stage. This version, presented by the Arena Theatre, belongs to George. While Edrye Doman makes an effective Martha, slinking across the stage, extending her tongue and rolling her eyes like an oversexed monitor lizard in an alarmingly patterned muumuu, her performance never asks for sympathy and doesn't receive it. Harrison Matthews plays George with a clipped line delivery and quicksilver mood shifts, lobbing bons mots like hand grenades and responding with childlike glee to the damage they cause. "A portrait of a man drowning," Martha declares, pointing at George, and that is exactly what Matthews gives us. We feel a strange protectiveness for this man, who gasps for air under the weight of his wife's hideousness and then expels the air again in clouds of scarring wit. That strange sympathy remains throughout the play, even when George's temperament turns almost literally murderous.

The play ends with George holding Martha as they sift through the remains of their marriage and find nothing of value. George is the cause of this damage, and Matthews finds in this scene a perverse sort of triumph. Matthews rises to his full height amid the ruins, and he appears to be at least seven feet tall. George has savaged his world, but in doing so he has become its master.

The failings of Seduced, a joint production between the Cockpit and Rhombus theaters, are inherent in the choice of the material itself. Perhaps with some fiddling something could be made of Sam Shepard's script, but the theater's reading is maddeningly literal, including every dubious line of dialogue and following every stage direction. Purporting to explore Howard Hughes's waning days as an invalid at the mercy of his bodyguards, Shepard's play begins with an unfortunate decision: The playwright chooses to rename Hughes, calling him Henry Hackamore--a name that would have suited Don Knotts in one of his early starring roles (let's say The Love God). Come to think of it, Knotts would have made an excellent Hackamore, a character who spends most of the play covering his frail body in Kleenex and blustering at his manservant.

Shepard's labored weirdness can't compete with the reported madness of Hughes's declining years. Surrounded by Mormon nursemaids and Mason jars filled with his own feces, Hughes festered from hypodermic needles lodged in his arm while endlessly viewing films like The Brain That Wouldn't Die. Shepard gestures at the sensationalism these events invite, but he blunders with everything from a misused soundtrack to indulgent dialogue. Cockpit and Rhombus re-create every one of these errors, beginning with the play's opening musical cue: Randy Newman's "Sail Away." "It's great to be an American," Newman sings--but his acidic song is meant to be the words of a slave trader to an African slave, which makes precious little sense when playing behind the actions of a mad billionaire.

Christian Gaylord stars as Hackamore, and confounds matters further by playing the character as though he were a Yeshiva instructor, interpreting the odd rhythms of Shepard's overwritten dialogue (sample: "At the front door to death I needed women!") as though they were from the Talmud. As Gaylord's hysteria grows, spittle flies from his mouth in such abundance that the first row of audience members should receive plastic tarpaulins, as happens at a Gallagher show. Ever loyal to Shepard's vision of Hughes, Gaylord's performance as the billionaire is bewilderingly affected, as inappropriate for the story as the Newman songs that continue to play in the background.

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