Eugene O'Neill believed that artists who try to save the world lose themselves. I don't think he meant to discourage the role of theater as a social or religious force, but instead recognized the contrivances possible when one tries to write something "important." Like expert lovemaking, great plays insinuate themselves upon you gently, leaving you to explore the meanings and consequences of the act long after it's over. But consciously important work comes at you like a clumsy amateur in a Corvette, telling you what to think and feel and, ultimately, turning you off.
Bruce E. Rodgers told a packed crowd at the Theatre Club of the Palm Beaches that he wanted to write a play about Stephen Hawking, the Cambridge University physicist afflicted with Lou Gehrig's disease. Considered one of the most brilliant scientists in history, Hawking still holds the Lucasian professorship, a chair once occupied by Isaac Newton (Mr. Gravity). Tragically, Hawking's body is immobile, a prison, and he is forced to communicate through computers and voice synthesizers.
Sounds like an important concept - the enlightened mind trapped in a useless body. Rodgers was struck by the irony in 1982, but it took time to realize that Hawking's tale needed a disguise to take shape on stage. So he wrote The Gravity of Honey, in which his characters - a Catholic priest and a nightclub singer - receive the ultimate enlightenment: genuine proof of God. They also pay for it dearly.
After several workshop productions and a 1991 opening at the Tiffany Theater in Los Angeles, Rodgers refined his play again for this Palm Beach production. But central flaws indicate the need for more revision. The premise is too grand and the relationship between the central characters is sometimes cliche, sometimes hollow.
Honey Leone, "a vocal stylist," marches into the confessional of curmudgeon Father Benjamin and describes a disjointed vision she had while making tofu pizza. They're now on a mission together - Honey and the priest - she insists, something of great significance to the world. After discovering that Honey isn't Catholic and that her confession "doesn't end in a sin," the impatient Father throws her out, skintight spandex and all. But fate (more noticeably, the playwright) forces them back together, Honey's mystical revelations begin to yield uncanny knowledge, and Father Benjamin swallows the bait.
As Honey writes increasingly complex equations and advanced quantum physics in red loose-leaf notebooks, her body becomes the willing vehicle for cosmic communication. And she deteriorates like Professor Hawking. Eventually confined to a wheelchair, barely able to speak, Honey turns Father Benjamin into both companion and conduit for earth-shaking revelations. The priest, initially repelled by a purely scientific explanation of God, touches her skin and senses a force far greater than his pedestrian faith.
Predictably, the fading cleric finds spiritual renewal, and the hedonistic kook earns sainthood. Recognize the formula? And although the package reeks of significance - Rodgers is a smart man, and his dialogue never lets you forget it - exchanges between Benjamin and Honey lack the drama this play so desperately needs. With such an important idea, you expect great things, yet nothing new happens.
The premise launches most of the problems. Best explored by showing human action and interaction, the soul described has no soul. Metaphysics makes for interesting books but flawed plays; discussing the nature of astral rhythms and gravitational pulls dims the human stakes we need to see. How do these characters honestly feel? I'd like to think that if the meaning of life was communicated to me, I'd stop worrying about premarital sex, monopoly, and church meetings. Rodgers just doesn't create three-dimensional people encountering God.
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Los Angeles actress Angelina Fiordellisi - who developed this role through its workshop revisions - makes Honey zany, likable, and streetwise. A talented actress and singer, she withers impressively throughout the course of the play, but she's a bit too adorable from the start, too obviously a perfect vehicle for the divine.
As Benjamin, William Andrews portrays a stiff man even more stiffly. The trap of playing priest as limp stick-in-the-mud restrains him to the point where he never fully connects with Honey, which is an essential element. Tony Giordano's direction, only as far as technical aspects and staging, tops the play. Using just a table, two chairs, and a stunning backdrop of the heavens, he creates a suitably metaphysical mood.
Having said this, I want to add that by producing works-in-progress, The Theatre Club serves a critical dramatic need. Rodgers merits respect as a playwright willing to reshape his vision, and some audiences may find the theories presented by his work intriguing. At least it stimulates the mind. For those who want their theater challenging as well as entertaining, it's the right track.
THE GRAVITY OF HONEY
Written by Bruce E. Rodgers, directed by Tony Giordano; with Angelina Fiordellisi and William (Bud) Andrews. At The Theatre Club of the Palm Beaches, 262 South Ocean Blvd, Manalapan, through March 29. Performances Wednesday - Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Sunday 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.