Psycho Analysis

Hollywood is openly neurotic about its hatred of psychotherapy. Witness, most recently, Barbra Streisand's ridiculous Dr. Susan Lowenstein in The Prince of Tides who aggressively mischaracterizes the entire profession with each flick of her nails. In the theater, however, obnoxious psychotherapists tend to appear when a playwright is trying to make a story seem more profound than it really is, as in Peter Shaffer's Equus or Nicholas Wright's Mrs. Klein.

When no other creative maneuver suggests itself, playwrights use therapists to stand in for mind readers, nebulous antagonists, and scapegoats. In the worst-case scenarios, they become secondary characters whose job it is to root out the "truth" haunting the principals. Sometimes they're turned into a kind of litmus test for dramatic reality: We learn about a character based on what he or she reveals to the therapist, without regard for the authenticity of the doctor's role. Would a real therapist actually tell a patient he's mad as a hatter? No? Well, never mind, if it fits the design of the play. In the hands of novices, shrinks are too readily employed as cheap plot devices.

That's the case with Deceptions, a new play by screenwriter Paul Wheeler making its Florida premiere at the Area Stage Company in Miami Beach. Wheeler isn't exactly a novice. His TV writing credits include prestigious BBC series such as Poldark and Danger UXB. In addition to Ransom -- the 1977 Oliver Reed effort, not the Mel Gibson vehicle -- his movie scripts include A Breed Apart (1984) and Puppet on a Chain (1970). I'm willing to bet that he's never actually availed himself of a psychotherapist. At any rate, he certainly hasn't taken the time to figure out how they work. One sure sign of ignorance about the profession is that many writers -- who would certainly not consider writing about, say, astrophysicists without first reading up on them -- assign to psychologists dialogue and motives that are quite simply preposterous.

In Deceptions, for example, the entire play revolves around the relationship of Adrian Wainwright, a twentysomething Londoner, and Julia Smythe, his new therapist. On the couch for the first time when we meet him, Adrian says he has come to Julia's office in hopes of finding out what is making him impotent. When Julia suggests the problem may be his mother, Adrian jumps up and announces he's cured. He begins to leave the room. Julia, unhappy that Adrian has used only ten minutes of his hourlong session, encourages him to stay. She also thinks that his problem may not be so simply diagnosed.

Adrian's story then takes several twists and turns: His father may or may not be a spy. His mother may or may not be depressed. And he may or may not have a problem with his girlfriend. What's material is that Julia soon realizes that Adrian is perpetrating a hoax at her expense. In a fit of pique, she tells him he's insane. At the most superficial level, it's annoying that so much of the subsequent action springs from Julia's anger at being fooled. From this time on, it's just a short leap to the point where Julia will become the scapegoat for Adrian's psychic ills. But by the time we find out what's going on -- why Adrian has not presented himself truthfully, how Julia has unknowingly affected Adrian's life through her association with someone else -- we're too astonished by the ridiculous plot to really care about Adrian's well-being.

From the get-go Adrian's dialogue is full of cheap gibes at the psychology profession along the lines of "Your job is to make sure that people come back next week and pay you 50 quid." Wheeler seems never to have considered that Julia would have to be a mediocre analyst indeed to take personally a patient's act of fraud. Deceptions, however, is not trying to be a play about an inept psychotherapist. No, Julia is supposed to be a sympathetic character, at least until we learn the complications that occur when she and Adrian become romantically involved by the second act.

I won't bore you with the melodramatic shenanigans that transpire as Adrian begins writing a novel, then tries to persuade Julia to marry him, all the while trying to decide whether or not he'll contact his estranged father. The central problem with Deceptions is not that it has too much on its plate (and I haven't even mentioned the suicide attempt); it's that in throwing Adrian and Julia together, Wheeler has not come up with a single kernel of emotional truth. As the catalyst for Adrian's self-knowledge, Julia doesn't change at all -- she's not supposed to. Adrian's dramatic journey from one kind of inarticulate anger to another, on the other hand, is downright vapid. Despite all the activity on-stage, there's really nothing going on here.

At Area Stage, where the production is directed by associate artistic director Maria Banda-Rodaz, the play fits nicely onto the tiny stage. But Lyle Baskin's handsome sets -- in which Julia's office can be transformed into Adrian's tiny bed-sitter by rotating the walls 180 degrees -- are the only things that really work. Banda-Rodaz's direction is adequate but uninspiring. There's no sense that the actors are thinking about their timing; their interaction turns lazy after the snappiness of the first act.

As Julia, the talented Lisa Morgan Patrick is not only swallowed up by a thankless part, she's also held captive by a bad wig. As Adrian, Nick Bixby gives a spirited performance, but his character is so shallow that Bixby doesn't register. As for the playwright, I have no idea if he needs a therapist, but -- please -- get him to a dramaturge at once.

Stage Whispers
By complete chance -- thanks to a choice freelance assignment from a cable-TV magazine -- two weeks ago I found myself talking to actor Michael York, who coughed up an obscure piece of theater history. York starred in the 1972 movie version of Cabaret, of course, but said he hasn't yet seen the heralded stage version now on Broadway with Natasha Richardson. That's partially because he's spent most of 1998 working on film and TV projects, including a version of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court for Disney. York plays the fabled British king; the time-traveling Yank is played by -- betcha can't guess -- Whoopi Goldberg.

Long before he played the king who liberated Excalibur, York was one of the screen's most charming swashbucklers. Recalling how he came to star in Richard Lester's 1974 film The Three Musketeers, the actor said: "Dick Lester called me, but I had just signed to do Outcry [a Tennessee Williams play]. I had the opportunity to do work with Tennessee Williams. Lester was understanding enough to say, 'Stay in touch.' What happened was, the play didn't run, and I did the film. We later became friends. Williams came to Spain [where The Three Musketeers was filmed] and stayed in our house."

Never heard of Outcry? It's a late Williams work, written in 1973. York said he's fond of the playwright's later dramas, which were dismissed by critics while Williams was alive. But many of them are now getting renewed respect, particularly on the British stage. (Vanessa Redgrave, whose mid-Eighties appearance in Orpheus Descending in London brought the play to New York, also recently revived the 1938 work Not About Nightingales.) Of Williams's late-career work, York insisted, "The critics counted him out, but he refused to play dead."

Hello and goodbye to the Hollywood Playhouse, which is undergoing an identity change. The 55-year-old institution, the oldest theater in South Florida, recently named a new executive board, headed by president Bruce Yoskin. Andy Rogow is now artistic director; Pamela Pellerin is managing director. All this means that long-reigning executive director Marianne Mavrides has retired after 35 years at the helm in order to "travel, pursue other interests, and focus my theatrical activities on-stage or as a director."

Louis Silvers, vice president of the new Playhouse, says the mission of the theater is changing along with its staff. The goal is to attract younger audiences while holding on to the 2000 subscribers, many of whom have been with the Playhouse since its early days as a community theater. In addition to bringing in an improv group for late-night shows on Saturdays in September, the Playhouse will, for the first time, hire Equity actors for its upcoming season. Look for cappuccino to be available in an on-site cafe. If that's not progress, I don't know what is.

Deceptions.
Written by Paul Wheeler; directed by Maria Banda-Rodaz; with Lisa Morgan Patrick and Nick Bixby. Through August 23. AreaStage Company, 645 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach; 305-673-8002.

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