Theater Reviews: Artifice Wrecks, in Isolde and Desire

Richard Maxwell's Isolde, at Theatre for a New Audience. Gerry Goodstein

Richard Maxwell’s Isolde, opening the season at the Theatre for a New Audience, belongs to the Mad Libs school of dramaturgy, in which various more-or-less random elements are fitted together to fashion something absurd. Ideally, the way the elements fit or don’t should produce sparks of emotion along the seams, or at least, as in Mad Libs, peals of laughter. Isolde doesn’t do much of the former or any of the latter; it just sits there, complacently making no sense.

The elements seemed promising in précis. A middle-aged actress named Isolde (but mostly called, existentially, Iz) suffers from what appears to be a form of pre-senile dementia that leaves her unable to learn her lines. She turns her formidable energies instead to planning a dream house; her husband, Patrick, is a contractor. When an architect enters to realize the dream, you think the play may be prepared to explore the connection between building rooms and building memories, that it may even dramatize the “memory palace” technique by which savants perform astonishing feats of recall. Nah. That would be too prosaic and, you know, human.

Maxwell isn’t especially interested in the human, or not as it is typically represented in drama. He tells his actors (he directs his own work) that simulating reality is not their job. Nor, apparently, his. His characters are not so much bundles of psychology as graven archetypes, like chessmen each with one perseverative trait. Isolde is the Queen, of course; she does anything she wants. Patrick is her pawn. The architect is — well, I don’t know if they’ve added this piece to the board yet, but he’s the pompous gasbag so ridiculously over the top (his name is Massimo) that no one would dream of hiring him. I guess he’s the bishop.

If my metaphor seems unfair, check out Maxwell’s; he’s gussied up the story with a dusting of Tristan and Isolde. This is in no way integral; as he explains in publicity materials, the title came to him in a dream, after which he looked up the Tristan story on Wikipedia. Brave admission, yet using the ancient Irish tale — let alone Wagner’s “Liebestod,” playing softly during the climax — as a way of looking at this one is like using a telescope to look at a fingernail.

To be fair, that distortion is deliberate; Maxwell wants to keep audiences from falling into familiar patterns of perception. The problem, for me, is that actors aren’t built that way; they can’t perform a negation. Though Tory Vazquez (Isolde), Jim Fletcher (Patrick), and Gary Wilmes (Massimo), all frequent Maxwell collaborators, expertly apply a stilted, almost robotic spin to his often cryptic and pretentious dialogue —

MASSIMO: Your husband is a contractor?
ISOLDE: That’s what he becomes.

— glimmers of actual feeling pierce their artificiality. (Brian Mendes, in the small role of Uncle Jerry, really didn’t get the memo; he’s positively funny.) Maxwell may not want actors to pretend, but nonsimulation as an aesthetic — or should I say as anaesthetic? — is a bore for everyone. The habit of trying to be real is a hard one for actors, and the rest of us, to break.

*  *  *

The omnibus evening Desire, an offering of The Acting Company, is another in a series of theatrical misadventures that makes you question the management of the Tennessee Williams estate. Having overexploited the big properties, the University of the South, which holds the Williams copyrights, has been signing off on all sorts of experiments in exploitation of the middling ones. I suppose I wouldn’t be complaining about this if any of the experiments were ever any good, but they’re not, and this latest one, in which six contemporary playwrights adapt six Williams short stories for the stage, is particularly annoying, like shaking up a soda can full of tired Tennessee-isms, then popping the top and letting it spray. Stuck to the wall by the end of the evening are bits of faded belles, tortured homosexuals, drunk writers, disturbed sisters, and even that strangely recurrent Williams trope, the tortured homosexual-eating cannibal.

That last is from Desire Quenched by Touch, Marcus Gardley’s overripe adaptation of the 1948 story “Desire and the Black Masseur,” in which the only thing purpler than the pummeled flesh of a masochistic client is his dialogue: “I have deep sores. Caverns to be explored.” Maybe, but the story doesn’t. David Grimm’s take on “Oriflamme,” a proto-Stanley and Blanche encounter (though published long after A Streetcar Named Desire), also sounds like satire: “Imagine having to fly up there, so near that sweltering sun on a day like this,” says the losing-it lady in the scarlet gown. “Why, the little songbirds must be fairly parched!” At least Grimm, tracing the thick outlines of the original, manages to produce a credible likeness of drama. The evening’s first two playlets don’t manage as much. Beth Henley’s adaptation of “The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin,” a Williams story from 1950, is so limp that its clichés — a girl pianist is driven mad by her art and by the kindly attentions of a handsome violinist — don’t even register as mockable. Elizabeth Egloff’s updating of “Tent Worms,” a late doodle that all but announces Williams’s drug-fuelled self-immolation, is merely a washout, moving from Cape Cod back-deck realism (a bickering author-and-agent couple) to the oracular surreal (an angelic bare-chested fireman?) without ever encountering a credible human feeling along the way.

The plays that end each act are the best of the lot. John Guare’s You Lied to Me About Centralia, based on Williams’s 1948 "Portrait of a Girl in Glass," is a stunt but at least a successful one, doing for The Glass Menagerie what Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead does for Hamlet. Perhaps the name Tom (and his fiancé Betty) will ring an amusing bell or two. But scrounging scraps from a great play does not ensure a satisfying new one. This may be why the only really viable writing in Desire is in the segment that strays furthest afield, in tone and time, from the original. Rebecca Gilman transfers “The Field of Blue Children” from the 1930s to the present — there are references to Chaco shoes, selfies, and gender normativity — but lets the story of an in-crowd sorority girl who falls briefly in love with an out-crowd nerd-poet go where the new circumstances take it. One place it goes is under the sundress of the main character, Layley; what Williams could only decorously suggest becomes here the hilariously literal climax of a plot that nevertheless touches on all of the original’s underlying pathos. If Gilman can’t quite bring the play down from its high point for a solid landing, this is still a one-act that could stand on its own, instead of depending, like all the others, on ghostly crutches.

Desire — directed by Michael Wilson, who does not make a glorious showing here — is obviously meant to cohere around its title emotion, yet, like most of the decisions made in mounting the production, the choice feels fairly random. Isn’t everything Williams wrote about desire? Or, also, about death and regret and delusion and escape and a hundred other abstract nouns? An apter title might have been Scene Study, because the performances, mostly by Acting Company alumni, are the only generally successful elements of the endeavor. The better the writing, the better their work, so Megan Bartle, as both Betty and Layley, walks off with the evening; Liv Rooth, as the proto-Stella in Oriflamme, is also excellent.

It’s a sad day — and these days a frequent day — when Tennessee Williams needs to be made tolerable by actors. A simple answer to that sadness might point out that the man didn’t write or even “authorize” this mess. But a more perplexing question remains: Now that Williams’s strange and extreme form of romantic realism has become so much a part of our culture, have we outgrown our ability to be moved by it?

Isolde is at the Polonsky Shapespeare Center through September 27.
Desire is at 59E59 through October 10.