Opening Nights


Seattle Repertory Theatre; ends Sat., March 6

Man, does Tina Landau mean business when she deconstructs a play. Not content to merely strip-mine and rebuild the text of this 1939 Pulitzer Prize-winning mood piece by William Saroyan, the director and her scenic designer, G.W. Mercier, go commando on the physical production: The wing space and back wall of the vast Rep stage are exposed, as is the lighting grid, and there's a huge building girder hanging over the audience because . . . well, I'm not quite sure why a huge building girder is hanging over the audience, though I've no doubt it's metaphorical and simply teeming with import. By forcing our attention on the structure of theater itself, the undeniably eye- popping effect goes a long way toward achieving Landau's goal of "heightened awareness," as program notes tell us. She's taking a cue from Saroyan's description of his work as "theatrical entertainment, a circus, anything you like" and, I guess, from lines in the play that suggest reality itself is only willful artifice, e.g., "It takes a lot of rehearsal for a man to get to be himself" and "Living's an art—it's not bookkeeping." The result, unfortunately, is a production only slightly more engaging than bookkeeping, and a lot less efficient. This is theater as Event, and it will likely appeal to those who cherish high-minded hoo-ha but, call me bourgeois, it will frustrate anyone who wanted The Time of Your Life and not Much Ado About Saroyan.

In keeping with Landau's odd, affected style, Jeff Perry gives an odd, affected but thoughtful performance as Joe, the wealthy drunk and premier denizen of Nick's Pacific Street Saloon, Restaurant, and Entertainment Palace, a glorified dive in Depression-era San Francisco's Embarcadero. Joe is downing champagne and breathlessly throwing his money around—he sends comrade Tom (Patrick New) out on spontaneous runs for toys, gum, and other distractions—in an attempt to keep his soul from drying up. Perry is almost shell-shocked and somnambulant—his Joe stays awake to the world only through determined interactions with whoever comes into his radius: Tom's eventual love, Kitty Duval (Mariann Mayberry, studiously somber), a two-bit whore with burlesque ambitions; Kit Carson (Howard Witt, terrific), a would-be Buffalo Bill and teller of tall tales; hambone Harry (Guy Adkins, bizarrely channeling SNL's Molly Shannon), who would like to make the world laugh; et al.

Saroyan's effusive sentiment is just this side of corn, but he's so purely committed you'd feel an awful cynic to dismiss him. "We'd go to beautiful cities and see the wonderful people everywhere," Kitty gushes about her fantasy marriage, and it squeezes your heart to think of anyone dashing her dream (someone does, of course). Even better is Joe's eventual confession, in which he unloads the fact that "money is the guiltiest thing in the world." This is all still moving, but, geez, Landau treats everything here like a Big Moment —lights go down, spotlights come up, and music kicks in, as if she needs to prove why this thing won a Pulitzer. (The final tableau has the whole huge ensemble—about two dozen busy, busy people—crooning an ironic "Let's Face the Music and Dance" while a bright spot catches the American flag in the background. Whew.)

Landau does capture the sometimes whimsical serendipity that interrupts the monotony of bar life. It's clear that great effort went into evoking both the manic and the melancholy of the time—the production has an artful shapelessness that suggests this is just another day for this place and these people. It feels like such a great effort, and remains so shapeless, however, that it's a chore to watch, and it operates at such a high level of hermetic self-importance that it doesn't seem to need an audience at all. Your applause at the end feels like another stage direction that Landau has underlined.

The aesthetic conceit here is so ele-phantine that it almost makes Saroyan's humble truisms seem disingenuous. The show feels like a sumo wrestler in your lap, gurgling that he's really just a bouncing baby boy—he may have been once, but he got awfully heavy somewhere along the way. The opening-night crowd, I should note, went bananas, as if Landau just might be onto something with this live theater idea of hers (do people not get out anymore? Is HBO programming that compelling?). I'm glad Landau is using her evident intellect to explore and expand the possibilities of her art—I just hope next time she picks on something her own size. STEVE WIECKING


Union Garage; ends Sat., March 13

The late playwright Sarah Kane considered the brutality of her plays to be naturalistic. "Acts of violence simply happen in life," she said. "They don't have a dramatic buildup and they are horrible." By engaging the bleakest aspects of human experience—rape and cannibalism, yes, but also misguided vengeance and nihilism—Blasted stands in horrified opposition to both military-sanctioned torture and domestic assault.

The play takes place in a hotel room in England during wartime. Ian (Eric Ray Anderson), a journalist, escorts girlish Cate (Sharia Pierce) into the room, then proceeds to the bathroom, leaving her to inspect the place. Is she a prostitute? His daughter? One of the virtues of the piece is that it refuses to tell what it can show. (As it happens, Ian and Cate were once an item, and the first half of the show is a power struggle wherein Ian wants Cate to sleep with him and Cate wants nothing of the sort.)

Anderson gives an extremely physical performance, equal parts menace and vulnerability. An unrepentant smoker and borderline alcoholic, Ian frequently succumbs to debilitating coughing fits; Anderson makes Ian's most dramatic collapse so pitiable that his repeated mistreatment of Cate is merely one facet of a complex figure.

The resolution of Ian's desire for Cate sets the stage for a tense, violent showdown between Ian and a feral soldier (Mike Pham) who invades the room. In a lucid moment, the soldier confesses to a series of hideous war crimes, then appeals to Ian's duty as a journalist to disseminate this information. Ian demurs, saying: "No one's interested. I write stories, that's all. This isn't a story anyone wants to hear."

Blasted may not be a story anyone wants to hear, but Kane was determined to tell it anyway. Though the play is a three- character work, only two of them are ever present at a given time, which makes even the most horrific acts strangely insular. Kane taps into the enormous potential of individual stories to make suffering a real concern, impossible to dismiss or ignore. Our willingness to listen can only make us more human. NEAL SCHINDLER

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