Stall in the Family

Having just coordinated a three-day conference with some of theater's finest critics and scholars (hosted by New World School of the Arts, with performances by NWSA and Florida International University that did the area much good, as far as credibility goes), I attended numerous panels about the theatrical body, and was surprised at the strength of the consensus reached regarding new playwrights and their work. Among them:

New plays show a distinct preference for style over substance - in other words, sketches peopled with poorly drawn characters predominate rather than hearty, linear stories.

Many new pieces ignore the significance of language, reducing the majesty of theater to soap-opera simplicity. Shakespeare, Wilde, Mamet, and Shaffer all penned dialogue destined to be remembered, whereas current entries merely make small talk.

Naturalism to an excessive degree negates the heightened reality and dramatic tension necessary on-stage. Portraying a "real" family breakfast - going through the standard motions of the morning routine - may be an exercise in care and observation, but one that obviates drama.

Although I tend to disagree slightly with this venerable consortium, believing that younger creators - massively influenced, like it or not, by television - may simply be expanding and reshaping the form as each generation should do, I must admit that my subsequent trip to the Theatre Club of the Palm Beaches did nothing to contradict the panelists' collective summation. Instead, the relatively new work on display there, playwright Bruce E. Rodgers's Lost Electra, ably proved each of the aforementioned major points.

Rodgers's ambitious but ineffective The Gravity of Honey was the Theatre Club's last production; producing director Louis Tyrrell obviously enjoys this writer's intricate premises and sophisticated treatments. But the present outing suffers from even more problems than the last: Honey contained interesting dialogue in place of substance, while Electra misses on all counts.

The ever-smart Rodgers blurs time/space lines to link two separate stories in this tale, which involves people lost and found, and a slew of sub-premises. The surreal strand concerns famed aviator Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, who in 1937 tried to circle the globe but disappeared somewhere between New Guinea and Howland Island. The play theorizes that she intentionally crashed on the island of Saipan, where she operated as a spy. To illustrate such pre-feminism boldness, Rodgers examines Earhart's odd relationship with her husband, publisher George Putnam, a man willing to give her plenty of space as long as she brought home barrels of bacon.

The second and more central tale introduces the Tollers, a typical American family of the early Sixties. Husband Mike, a former WWII Air Force captain, was stranded and left for dead on Saipan, and although a vision of his future family helped him escape, we find him lost in mid-life, an insurance salesman afraid of flying. His partner in the pretense of a happy household, wife Sylvia, yearns for another child but is blocked by her mate; the couple's son, perky fifteen-year-old Alan, faces a mounting attack of hormones.

Although Toller happily dominates his wife, the figure of female gladiator personified by Earhart is more appealing, and he dreams of returning to Saipan to find her and all she represents. But an unexpected nightmare unites the two couples right at home, as the Earharts try to help the Tollers survive a great loss.

Because the playwright depends more on style than substance, on flash portraits rather than fleshed-out characterizations, what might have been fascinating ends up flat. And so much uninspired talk, deficient of any iota of poetry, insight, or wit, sabotages the impact. Still, Lost Electra does contain some intriguing devices - perhaps a rewrite would inject more momentum into the piece. But Rodgers must work harder on his dialogue. Characters in the theater, unlike those in popular media, should spout lines more memorable than "Have a muffin" and "Remember to take your lunch," otherwise boredom is bound to obliterate whatever virtues might be sustaining the piece.

Director J. Barry Lewis (New Times Best Director of 1992, for his numerous achievements on South Florida stages) again manages admirably with difficult material. Somehow he arranges characters from different eras and areas so they can interact believably, and executes Mike's nightmare on Saipan with chilling authenticity. The simple but lovely set by Victor Becker suits the shifting stories. (Unfortunately, the lights were not working properly on the night I attended, so Pamela Mara's design can only be imagined.)

As Amelia Earhart, Pat Nesbit provides an anchor of nobility expressed through calm control and graceful movement. John Gardiner's Putnam is suitably inflated, and Jeanne Waters's Sylvia suitably deflated. But Sean Patrick Fagan as Alan bounds up and down the stage with energy, not honesty, and the essential lead role - Kenneth Kay as Mike - projects the reverse. Kay gets locked in one note, unable to connect viscerally with the many "big" moments his character must face. Without this driving force, the tragedy never exceeds simple sorrow, and the final triumph comes off as exhausted resignation.

As I have said many times, the venue, recent recipient of a sizable grant from the MacArthur Foundation, remains one of the few places to see experimental works. At some point in the season, it merits the hour-plus drive. And though Rodgers may very well be another flawed contemporary playwright struggling with a mire of dull dialogue, clever gimmicks, and more premise than plot, the effort he extends eventuates more intellectual challenge than just another pleasant piece done too many times in too many places.

LOST ELECTRA by Bruce E. Rodgers, directed by J. Barry Lewis; with Sean Patrick Fagan, Jeanne Waters, Kenneth Kay, John Gardiner, and Pat Nesbit. At the Theatre Club of the Palm Beaches, 262 South Ocean Blvd, Manalapan, through May 10. Performances Wednesday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Sundays at 7:00 p.m., matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Tickets cost $18 to $20. Call 407-585-3433 for more information.

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