Friday, April 2, 2004

Think, wait, fast: Siddhartha comes to Portland Players

Published in the Portland Phoenix

In Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, the man who will become the Buddha searches high and low for meaning and understanding in his world. Along the way, he sees many things and learns three powerful lessons about himself: "I can think, I can wait, and I can fast."

In my own travels, these principles have often proved fruitful, as has a corollary from The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife: "I can hold it."

Marjorie (Irene E. Lemay) is the frustrated intellectual wife of an allergist. She and her husband live down the hall from her mother in a New York apartment building. For Marjorie, everything is trifling, including herself. Perhaps she is right: She has written a book "heavily influenced by Thomas Pynchon" and punctuated with a system of her own devising. This, of course, she considers her most worthwhile accomplishment. Her sense of self-pity is bolstered by her failure to understand Waiting for Godot.

She has a passion for German literature, and repeatedly invokes the inspiring story of Siddhartha as she journeys through life herself, though largely without looking away from the pavement.

Her life is much like the play itself. She begins with insignificance; passes through confusion, introspection, and obscure literary references; and ventures into an uninspiring political moment. Then returns to insignificance.

The acting is strong, for the most part. The oddest thing is that doorman Mohammed (Keith Brown) is supposedly from Iraq but has an accent modeled on that of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, owner of the Springfield Kwik-E-Mart.

Lemay is herself strong as a tormented rich woman at loose ends because she need not work and is exhausted from 30 years of volunteering. Clay Graybeal is mincing and barely present as her husband, but that’s how the character is written, so he does well. Anne Sibley O’Brien (as Lee) swans around the stage like the diva her character is.

It is Betty Longbottom (as Frieda, Marjorie’s mother) who steals the show, though, with the most laugh lines. Sadly, nearly all of them involved gratuitous profanity that was only funny because it was said with a straight face by an old Jewish grandmother-type.

Indeed, playwright Charles Busch has Marjorie lament the "dumbing down" of culture to "the lowest common denominator," and then has an old woman say "fuck" over and over again, predictably drawing huge guffaws from the audience.

To be fair, Longbottom also did very well with her bitter aspect and the detailed descriptions of her intestinal function. She also had a wonderful lament for what apparently used to be her "beautiful BMs." Again, though, we see a denominator not far above the floor.

Much of the plot is very funny, with good writing, interesting twists, and great acting. Even weird plot developments — is one of the characters really there? and if so, how can there be a menage-a-trois about to happen? — are handled well by the cast and director Michael Rafkin.

And yet, by the final scene, Busch has lost focus, leaving director, actors, and audience at sea. It is as if Busch noticed that his play was getting close to an end, and hadn’t yet Said Anything Important. Frustrated with his inability to maneuver complex literary allusions and purely comic plot lines into a Message For The People, Busch gave up.

He starts by dropping "fucks" all over the dialogue, drawing more and more laughs with less and less meaning. Then he launches Ira and Marjorie into an indictment of Lee that gives a current-events tie-in, a clue about why Portland Players chose this script when others might have been more entertaining, and more satisfying.

They call her a terrorist. Over and over and over, they call her a terrorist, of the soul, of the heart.

Suddenly, a pleasant, fun evening of light theater turns into a clichéd, poorly argued piece of political theater. It is a stunning piece of theater bait-and-switch.

What’s worse, it drags on and on, as Busch gets his characters around to their points — lacking all of the wit and mental cleverness that made the first six scenes fun and interesting. And then the play just stops, leaving a sense of relief that the ordeal is over. The audience wants no more.

The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife
Written by Charles Busch. Directed by Michael Rafkin. With Irene E. Lemay, Keith Brown, Clay Graybeal, Betty Longbottom, and Anne Sibley O’Brien. At Portland Players, through April 4. Call (207) 799-7337.


Prospective cast members beware. "Backstage" is officially stunned: Michael Howard, who didn’t show up to rehearsal after the Phoenix panned Macbeth last summer, didn’t get fired. He will be back directing for the Stage at Spring Point, which will have 12 performances of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in July. No word yet on whether Stage executive director Seth Rigoletti will attempt to star again.

• Sunday nights from 9 p.m. to midnight, hit rtsp:/./ to listen to Theatre Trash with Braden Chapman, originating from New York and including news, gossip, reviews, interviews, and more.

The Escapists are arriving at Casco Bay Books with a sizzling 20-minute show, including short plays, pop songs, comedic improvisations, and one aria. Performers Chris Fitze, Ryan Gartley, Christine St. Pierre, and Shelia Jackson, with writers Jason Wilkins and Jamalieh Haley, and director R.J. McComish, will be there on Friday evening, April 2, with three shows: at 7:30, 8:30 and 10 p.m. Admission is free.