Fire Escape

The Pope Theatre Company's saucy production of Eric Overmyer's Dark Rapture begins with a killer scene that could turn the most hard-core devotee of movies and TV toward the pleasures of live theater. Two men collide at the edges of a cataclysmic fire in Northern California. Amid the slides, lights, moving stage props, and music that simulate the fire's voracious appetite, they shout back and forth at each other about chaos, loss, existence, and fighting in the jungles of Cambodia. As fire ravages his house, one of the men, Ray, questions why he feels so alive on the threshold of a catastrophe, and remarks that everyday life is not enough for human beings. Instead, he says, we have a "deep-seated need to manufacture our own inclement weather," an ominous observation that stalks him throughout the rest of the play as he runs from one life to the promise of another.

This edge-of-the-seat opening serves as an overture to more than a dozen scene changes in Dark Rapture, and each one, if not as pulse-thumping as the first, is as clever and theatrical. The result of an inspired collaboration between set designer Frank Cornelius, lighting designer Suzanne M. Jones, and sound designer Jon M. Loflin, the changing scenes function as backdrop to Overmyer's takeoff on two distinctly American forms -- detective novels and film noir. Abetted by an excellent cast under the direction of Louis Tyrrell, it all comes together for a topnotch production. Unfortunately, Overmyer's script, while witty and provocative in places, is never as shrewd or inventive as the Manalapan-based Pope Theatre's staging of it. (Dark Rapture was commissioned by the Empty Space Theater in Seattle and first performed in 1993.)

No one is who they say they are and nothing is as it appears to be in the play's skeletal whodunit, which unfolds in a series of character introductions. Ray (Earl Hagan) is a would-be screenwriter who may or may not be dead as a result of the fire, and who may or may not have made off with seven million dollars, left in his now-destroyed house by his wife, Julia (Rose Stockton), a would-be movie producer. While the fire rages, Julia engages in a steamy tàte-…-tàte in Mexico with her stuntman boyfriend, Danny (Quint Von Canon). She returns to face the wrath of her backers, the dubious Vegas (Gordon McConnell) and Lexington (Richard Farrell), who demand to know where their millions have gone. Burned to cinders, Julia insists. The investors have other ideas and, led by their hired goon, Babcock (Jesse Doran), they hit the trail in search of the missing husband.

Riddled with allusions to the genres it parodies, from Raymond Chandler novels to Humphrey Bogart movies, the play's mystery element attempts to fuel its narrative drive. But Dark Rapture's story is never as intricate or gripping as a good detective novel or double-indemnity film because the mystery is just a device Overmyer uses for his real concerns: a celebration of this nation's sense of "place," and a fascination with the American myth of losing one's history and starting over again.

Believe me, a challenging exploration of either of those themes could supplant my interest in even the tightest plotted mystery. After all, mysteries and thrillers dominate the best-seller lists and cineplexes; intelligent cultural observation is a much rarer commodity. Maybe that's why Overmyer's treatment of his own ideas is disappointing. After he reveals an interest in something more than the mere commercial, he betrays that interest by dealing with it only on the surface. For example, descriptions of American outposts such as Seattle, New Orleans, and Key West are relegated to travelogue recitations of street names, native food and drink, and weather conditions. As for the desire to remake oneself repeatedly, Overmyer's examination of this American compulsion is limited to the shedding and assuming of identities by changing names and appearances. Perhaps this is a comment on the shallowness of American values. If so, it's a shallow comment.

At its best, Overmyer's language strikes me as a combination of the verbal wit and relentless mind games of Tom Stoppard and the vernacular of Sam Shepard, although he does not achieve the sharpness of the former or the passion of the latter. However, he succeeds at amusingly re-creating several American types, and Dark Rapture's nimble cast does justice to them. Of particular note are Richard Farrell and Gordon McConnell, performing in concert as the mannered, stylized gangsters Lexington and Vegas. The two also play, just as comically, a completely different couple: Julia's lawyers. Rose Stockton as the ambitious Julia manages to remain in control even as her character verges on a breakdown when the money and success she counted on too confidently appear to be slipping away. Karen Stephens's Key West drug dealer (Max) delivers a sultry and riotous soliloquy on the absurdity of how couples in movies have sex A against the wall. And Jesse Doran is cunning and stealthy as the grinning, ubiquitous Babcock; most memorable is his heartbreaking performance as a completely different character, the immigrant used-car salesman Nazim, who appears in only one scene.

Overmyer is best known in theater circles for his often-produced 1985 comedy On the Verge. An entertainment Renaissance man, he has written for television (St. Elsewhere, The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd) and currently works as a writer and producer for The Cosby Mysteries. He also adapts and translates classic texts, most recently Figaro/Figaro, which previewed in December at the Yale Repertory Theater. He has called Dark Rapture his midlife-crisis play, evolving out of a the image of a man watching a fire who was "about to leap through a window of opportunity and start his life over." Thus the stunning first scene. Would that he had sustained the power of that image throughout the entire play.

At first glance, two plays could not be more dissimilar than the stylish, contemporary Dark Rapture and Herb Gardner's ethnic memory piece, Conversations With My Father, which premiered on Broadway in 1992 and is currently at Hollywood Performing Arts in Hollywood. In fact, had I not seen the two almost back-to-back, I may not have recognized the obvious thematic parallel. Both are about the impossibility of turning one's back on the past and refashioning life without a history. As a character in Dark Rapture notes, "History is a living wound." No matter how far they attempt to run from it, the characters in both plays discover that their histories hunt them down and haunt them. But where Dark Rapture is slick, Conversations With My Father is raw; where Rapture is purposefully enigmatic and illusive, Conversations is in-your-face and angry. And where Rapture's characters change identities by changing sunglasses, the people in Conversations wrestle the daunting legacies of Russian pogroms, Nazi extermination camps, and unloving fathers in an attempt to free themselves. In neither play is anyone easily liberated.

Gardner's drama tells the familiar story of a successful son trying, long into adulthood, to win the admiration of a difficult father. He tells his tale through the contrived structure of adult Charlie (Tim Lewis) looking back on scenes remembered from life in his father's lower Manhattan tavern, from 1936 through 1976. The play is infused with a cloying nostalgia both for what was (Charlie's mother's Jewish food, the protectiveness of older brother Joey, the witticisms of long-dead tavern habitues) and for what wasn't (acknowledgement of Charlie by his stubborn and embittered father), and Gardner lards the dialogue with sentimental lines such as "Love doesn't make the world go round -- looking for it does." But the undeniable foundation of the play is the portrait of Eddie Ross (Michael Goldsmith), born Itsel Goldberg, the father determined to shake off the cloak of his painful heritage and remake himself as a tough-talking, hard-drinking, combative New World Jew. Goldsmith succeeds at effecting Eddie's transformation and, at the same time, conveying the price his character must pay. His performance is powerful and disturbing.

In addition to Goldsmith, particularly compelling is Walter Zukovski as Zaretsky, an indomitable Yiddish theater actor who, with Eddie, trades terrible memories of the Cossacks. One of Zaretsky's speeches marks the best writing in the play, a painfully wry recollection of the day after a terrible raid on the pair's Russian hometown, complete with the surreal imagery of feathers blooming in the trees and Cossacks wearing the suits and cloaks of dead Jews; it calls to mind the tradition of Eastern European masters such as Kafka and Kundera.

Stage Notes
The theater world lost a luminary two weeks ago when George Abbott died at his home on Sunset Island. The Broadway producer, director, playwright, and actor was 107 years old. Winner of 40 Tonys and a Pulitzer Prize, Abbott brought us memorable shows such as The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, and Fiorello! He not only enjoyed a productive and celebrated life in the theater but also encouraged countless others' theater careers. A visionary entertainer whose own career spanned the century, Abbott once was asked what he considered the greatest innovation in the theater during his lifetime. He answered, "Electricity.


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