Atlas Shrugged

Few of us are strangers these days to the details of child abuse. Television, newspapers, and magazines inundate us with the grim particulars of this problem with increasing frequency. Harder to discern than the facts in such situations are the motivations behind hurting a child. And more important than understanding the motivations is finding effective ways to prevent this kind of brutality. In some cases, journalists probe beneath the facts in order to illuminate the issues, but it's up to the novelist, scriptwriter, or dramatist -- writers who fictionalize life in order to arrive at a deeper truth -- to make sense of what drives a child abuser. Think of Dorothy Allison's remarkable first novel from a few years ago, Bastard Out of Carolina, or last year's unnerving Canadian film, The Boys of St. Vincent. Unfortunately, Larry Atlas's Total Abandon, now on-stage at Hollywood Playhouse, doesn't come close to the intelligence and insight of those two works. To his credit, in taking the point of view of the abuser, Atlas chose the riskiest route to unmasking abuse. But his gratuitously savage drama, filled with hackneyed psychological observations, does little more than exploit sensationalistic details. Ultimately it left me feeling both mentally pummeled and disgusted.

Meet poor, misunderstood Lenny Keller (Adam Koster). His two-year-old son, Tommy, lies in a hospital bed on a life-support system, at the mercy of doctors who want to pull the plug. Meanwhile over at the local courthouse, Keller's being held captive by an unsympathetic public defender (Amy Kozleuchar), a probing psychiatrist (Elena Wohl), and a hardheaded county coroner (Roger Martin), when all he really wants is a chance to persuade a judge not to allow doctors to end his son's life.

A trenchant exploration of medical ethics and a father's love for his son? Atlas would like us to think so -- at least until the fatuous plot of Total Abandon reveals that Keller has beaten Tommy so viciously that the boy has been rendered clinically dead. Does Keller truly care for the child or is he trying to beat a rap? After all, once Tommy's death becomes official, Keller's likely to be charged with murder. Given the sadism of the father's act, does his apparent concern matter? Atlas seems to believe it does, and we're asked to sympathize with Keller through most of the action. The playwright even intimates that Keller's not fully responsible for his crimes, supplying trite justifications for the character's murderous rage: an unfulfilling relationship with a crude, insensitive father, and abandonment by a promiscuous wife who left him and Tommy when the boy was three months old. Welcome to the culture of blame manifested in a two-act drama.

An undereducated, working-class male (the standard stereotype of an abuser), Keller must match wits with legal, psychiatric, and medical professionals. Between Keller's monologues and flashbacks and the court testimony, medical reports, and legal and psychiatric interviews provided by his adversaries, the puzzle pieces of the father's past and the facts about the night he threw Tommy against a wall begin to fit together. However, in case we don't have a thorough enough picture of Tommy's injuries from the medical examiner's litany of broken limbs and organ damage, Keller provides a blow-by-blow re-enactment of the beating. He is urged on by the psychiatrist not because she feels anyone needs further clarification of Keller's crimes and not because she thinks his remembering his actions will force Keller to take responsibility for them -- no, she urges him on because playwright Atlas apparently subscribes to the inane belief that a play of this sort requires a beastly climax. Trust me. It doesn't.

Director Barry Steinman has assembled a talented cast. In particular, Adam Koster is convincingly delusional in the unenviable role of Keller, and Amy Kozleuchar, as the public defender, copes with her disdain for a case that's been forced on her with the right amount of clipped, clinical authority. But the actors' honorable efforts can not salvage this hollow work.

I did not have high hopes as I wound through the deserted Sunday night streets to the opening of John Patrick Shanley's The Big Funk, the Trap Door Theatre's debut production at Tobacco Road. In concept I support mounting plays in settings that challenge the conventions of theater. But I've been to literary readings held in the Road's narrow upstairs room, with its poor visibility, postage stamp-size stage, and smoke-filled, unventilated air. Besides, I may be addicted to seeing live theater most nights of the week, but Sunday evenings I like my dose of soap opera with a British accent -- i.e., Masterpiece Theater. Within moments of the play's opening, however, my misgivings were allayed by the production's energy and humor.

Best known for scripts firmly grounded on New York City turf (including the play Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, and the screenplays for Five Corners and Moonstruck), writer Shanley lights out for more amorphous territory in The Big Funk A an unnamed demimonde floating somewhere between SoHo and the Left Bank. His cast of self-absorbed sometime-artists include Jill (Jennifer Smith), a blonde with man trouble; Fifi (Sarah Rome), who has fled a critical mother and a passive-aggressive father; Omar (Erik Fabregat), Fifi's husband and a professional knife thrower who lately has been missing the mark when he tosses his blades; and Austin (Ralph de la Portilla), an actor who hates society and seeks his depressed mother in other women. Each member of this quartet introduces him- or herself through a monologue, then calls attention to the artifice of drama by fighting the others for stage time.

The playfully ludicrous plot moves from bar to bathtub to living room until intermission, during which the audience waits downstairs as the cast builds a set for act two. (We're talking total theater experience here.) The evening resumes during a dinner party -- part Bu*uel, part group therapy session -- allowing the characters ample time to do what they do best: hold forth about their personal misery while dispensing advice to each other.

Shamelessly self-indulgent, long-winded, and crying out for merciless editing, Shanley's talky script is nonetheless kept afloat by an excellent cast of confident and spirited actors, who bring out the best in the wry writing and tongue-in-cheek characterizations. In lesser hands the evening would have seemed interminable, but under Kelly Miller's deft direction, with assistance from Stuart Meltzer (who also appears in a small role), the actors hit note after droll note, with Meltzer delivering my favorite line: "Being bad made you feel skinny." Miller and Meltzer also have reinterpreted Shanley's musical specifications with their own sense of what will buoy the evening. In both live theater and film, music too often is slapped on to fill in what the director fears are emotional blanks. But this collection of cuts from PJ Harvey, Edie Brickell, Ludwig von Beethoven, Dead Can Dance, Lone Justice, and Judy Garland enhances the production's texture and mood.

Although Jennifer Smith's mannerisms as the neurotic Jill play a bit too self-consciously, the FIU senior brings undeniable presence to her performance. New World School of the Arts junior Sarah Rome makes an indelible impression as Fifi when she enters wearing a circus tutu while miming a walk along a high wire. And the actress remains self-possessed even as her character degenerates into a hausfrau. Ralph de la Portilla not only shrouds his character's megalomania in a cloak of unabashed sensitivity, but the actor also manages to imbue the play's ridiculously long final speech with a patina of classical delivery. Luckily for us, Erik Fabregat gets to break out of the minor roles in which he's been cast all season, proving himself an assured actor with adroit comic timing. Chris Vila, in a small role as drag queen Magnolia, nicely balances vulnerability and instability, although I missed the authority I've seen the actor bring to other roles.

Despite the script's shortcomings, Trap Door Theatre's debut production offers one of the freshest approaches to theater I've seen this season. Go see it, and look forward to more work from Miller, Meltzer, and their gang.


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