Dead Poets Society

The great posthumously celebrated poet and recluse Emily Dickinson wrote: "One need not be a chamber to be haunted/One need not be a house/The brain has corridors surpassing/Material place."

I begin with this verse partly because Emily haunts the stage brilliantly through the efforts of Academy Award-winner Kim Hunter, in The Theatre Club of the Palm Beaches' The Belle of Amherst. Having said that, I must add that the brain, not poor Emily, is my first topic, but her poem fits nicely into the scheme of this critique. For right now in South Florida, an intelligence test of sorts is taking place, one that serves as a gauge to measure how many corridors the brain can possess -- or how few.

The how-stupid-can-you-get end of the gauge is perfectly exemplified by the Caldwell Theatre's new play, Smoke and Mirrors. By examining the see-Spot-run writing style of the playwright's notes, which are ominously included in the program, one infers that two actor/authors -- Anthony Herrera and Will Osborne (of the soaps Loving, As The World Turns, The Young and The Restless) -- wrote this cretinesque work with the intention of creating a good mystery that every theater in the country would want to produce. What a noble reason to write -- and what creative inspiration!

Granted that most soap-opera stars are to acting what reformation is to Judaism -- one toe in the religion, the rest of the foot dancing far from the discipline -- their on-stage performances rarely merit applause. When I acted in soaps, I observed an amazing behavior pattern taking place among a number of television performers: long breaks between shooting scenes were spent gawking at the television. It seems to me that reciting monosynaptic lines for a living should have been enough, let alone watching others do the same. After a short while of this boob-tube overload, the brain -- and the whole perspective of art -- must turn to mush. You can imagine how terrifying it is to confront these people in their guise as authors.

Which is apparently what happened to Mr. Herrera and Mr. Osborne. Having some idea of the play's premise -- a Sleuth/Deathtrap type of lite-theater cash cow -- I didn't attend with expectations of brilliance; simple entertainment would have sufficed. Alas, no such luck. Their tale of an unhappy movie-making quartet toying with murder contains so many predictable plot twists -- and so many ridiculous ones -- the tedium defies tidy description. Or maybe not: put simply, it's theater at a level worse than television.

Basically, there's Hamilton, a bossy director; Clark, a nerdy writer; and Derek, an extremely stupid actor. Having formed a company called Three Happy Fellas, which produced a commercially successful bad film called Vicksburg, the trio unhappily reunites, joined this time by Hamilton's unfaithful wife/publicist Barbara, to make the $50 million Return to Vicksburg. Clark has already tried to kill himself because his script was doctored (as though he's the first screenwriter in Hollywood to have experienced this), Hamilton wants a better actor for the lead than heartthrob Derek, and Barbara's ticked off that Clark didn't follow through on their affair. So -- for reasons unknown -- everyone decides to ice Derek, in a convoluted manner involving rehearsals with loaded props.

By the second act, Derek -- a cross between Luke Perry, Elvis, a Ninja Turtle, and a male impersonator, whose most memorable line is, "Big tits, cold feet" -- catches his bullet, and Clark takes the fall for the crime. Enter Sheriff Leroy Percy Lumpkin, a cross between Junior Sample and Columbo, playing the role as though policemen were not simply idiots, but clinically retarded. In fact, the characters of Derek and Leroy offer a play-within-a-play enigma, since in the script they're supposed to be bad actors. Potentially a funny gimmick (i.e., when you have someone like Meryl Streep or Robert De Niro pulling it off), this trick turns to confusion and, eventually, pathos when you have actual bad actors playing bad actors -- that's how blurry the line becomes. Whether Don Robinson as Derek and Tim Hodgin as Leroy took it upon themselves to step over the line into total incompetence or were guided there by director Michael Hall remains one of the few mysteries surrounding this piece.

As Barbara, Caldwell veteran Pat Nesbit has little to do but portray yet another female bimbo who turns hysterical at the slightest provocation, and so acquits herself from total buffoonery. But Michael Minor (an alumnus of Petticoat Junction and the soaps) dives right in, sweating up a storm in silk and so excessively huffy I could smell his breath freshener from the tenth row. Only Peter Bradbury (who always reminds me of Malcolm McDowell) is bearable to watch as Clark, although Barbara's lust for him lends another element of wonder: He's cute, but the image of a lady-killer just doesn'tsuit him.

Emily Dickinson as poet and subject of a one-woman show, on the other hand, demonstrates the reverse side of the scale -- how brilliant and brave humanity can be. To appreciate The Belle of Amherst, audiences need a love of literature and more than a few brain cells of their own. William Luce's more-than-a-decade-old script utilizes Emily's poetry wisely totell the story of a sometimes triumphant, mostly tragic life. Daughter of a prominent lawyer, author of 1,775 poems (only seven of which received publication in her lifetime), Emily lived most of her 56 years in Daddy's house and shadow, daring to love only one man (whom she met twice), and scribbling away into the wee hours, crafting a genius unappreciated by an ignorant world. Like most great artists, she slaved compulsively over her choice of words, even suspected the brilliance of them, but crumbled when "mentors" -- such as Thomas Wentworth Higginson at Atlantic Monthly -- condemned her for getting the rhymes wrong. "You don't understand," she would protest. Dear Emily, they rarely do until it's too late.

Hunter's acting transcends the basic craft, revealing founts of pure artistic talent. A joy to watch in such an intimate theater, she makes Emily's simple story enthralling by virtue of a gentle but ingenious personality. With the slightest flick of technique, she moves from pride to pain, loss to strength, from girlishness to rebellion. Under the able hand of director Peter Bennett, whose credits include a Drama Desk nomination and work at such esteemed houses as the Long Wharf, Hunter wafts about the stage with the soft urgency of nature, lost and alone, pleading with the audience to help her find solid ground in which to plant a legacy. When, at the age of 53, Emily speaks of her youth, of craving suitors, and of imagining herself the Belle of Amherst -- as opposed to the plain spinster in white she ultimately became -- the play tugs at everyone's lost illusions and disappointments, evoking a lump in the throat that marks powerful drama.

A huge commendation also goes to Suzanne Clement Jones's lighting plot, which complements the action and changes with the same delicate skill as Miss Hunter.

So forget about Batman Redux, Honey I Sucked Up the Kids, soap opera mannequins, and other brain drains. As a gift this week, I'll leave you with the glories of the human mind: Emily Dickinson describing the loss of loved ones: "So huge, so hopeless to conceive/As these that twice befell/Parting is all we know of heaven/And all we need of hell."

SMOKE AND MIRRORS by Will Osborne & Anthony Herrera, directed by Michael Hall; with Michael Minor, Pat Nesbit, Peter Bradbury, Don Robinson, and Tim Hodgin. At the Caldwell Theatre Company, 7873 N. Federal Hwy, Boca Raton, through September 6. Performances Tuesday -- Saturday 8:00 p.m., Sunday 7:00 p.m.; matinees Wednesday & Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Tickets cost $20. Call 462-5433 or 407-241-7432

THE BELLE OF AMHERST by William Luce, directed by Peter Bennett; with Kim Hunter. At the Theatre Club of the Palm Beaches, 262 S. Ocean Blvd, Manalapan through August 30. Performances Thursday -- Saturday 8:00 p.m,, Sunday 7:00 p.m; matinees Wednesday & Sunday 2:00 p.m. Tickets cost $18-20. Call 407-585-3433

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