A suburban kid in Brookline, Massachusetts — a good kid, a fine student, a personable young man — goes on a killing spree at his local school, leaving dozens of children and teachers dying in pools of blood. Charles Randolph-Wright’s play, The Night Is A Child, in its West Coast premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse (it premiered last year at Milwaukee Rep), studies the family of the teenage killer, who took his own life in the bloodbath, concentrating years later on the mother, a widow named Harriet (JoBeth Williams). On the anniversary of the rampage, Harriet goes AWOL to Rio de Janeiro, thereby mystifying her concerned adult son and daughter (Tyler Pierce and Monette Magrath) as to her whereabouts.
For a moment, the structure looks a bit like Tony Kushner’s Homebody, Kabul, about an American female scholar who disappears into Afghanistan and the upset it causes her pursuing family. But where Kushner’s heroine is prompted by irrepressible curiosity about a land far away, as well as a certain ennui, Randolph-Wright’s protagonist is motivated by the intersection of memory and despondency, and she’s chasing a cure. Brazil, or a tourist bureau version of it, is ensnared in her childhood fantasies. She arrives not speaking a word of Portuguese, yet she stumbles upon a vivacious, native guide named Bia (Sybyl Walker), whose sweet energy, as well as that of an inexplicably accommodating hotel owner named Joel (Maceo Oliver), land her a room on the otherwise overbooked Ipanema beachfront. Joel must have had a reason for canceling somebody else’s reservation in order to make room for Harriet. If he were charmed by her befuddlement borne of being in a foreign country — for which she’s taken no pains to prepare by learning even the rudiments of the language spoken there — it was a charm I missed.
My experience abroad is that even the slightest effort to learn the language is welcomed and regarded as a compliment. Harriet, however, has made no such effort, and the extent of her investment in learning about Brazil and its culture is having listened to Sergio Mendez and Brazil 66 during her youth. So why Joel would randomly cancel the reservation of one guest in order to make space for this tourist-in-distress is the first in a series of improbabilities that form the termite-infested crossbeams of Randolph-Wright’s play. If Harriet had fled the physical comfort of the U.S. only to find herself on the streets of Ipanema (rather than in a plush hotel overlooking the beach), that could have been the start of an interesting play about the kind of spiritual sojourn this Post-It note of a drama pretends to be.
Bia sways with the kind of Brazilian sensuality found, I guess, in the nightclubs there, and Harriet’s shock upon learning that Bia is a Harvard-trained physician provides the play’s welcome if de rigueur commentary on American arrogance. Harriet, however, too is trying to sway and to somehow use that Ipaneman sun to bleach out the grief over her lost son, the carnage he inflicted, and the hostile-curious stares from the denizens of Brookline. Among the play’s strengths is that she doesn’t discuss her tragedy for a long time but chooses instead to bask in the romance of her fantasy refuge. (Harriet has no plans to return to the U.S. — but she’s going to pay for this new life without a checkout date in a beachfront hotel, how?) Among the play’s other weaknesses is that eventually she does finally reveal what her son did — not that she tells it but how she tells it, as though auditioning for a lead on the Women’s Entertainment Network. And then the rampage is played out in a corner of the stage, in flashback, as though this were the movie we just saw Harriet audition for.
Tyler Pierce doubles as the killer, Michael, and as Harriet’s living son, Brian, because Michael and Brian were twins. Brian is an alcoholic with a failing marriage, while his sister, Jane, who accompanies him to look for their mother — actually, he accompanies her — works as a lawyer and has control issues. And as Harriet draws ever closer to the dangers of the Voodoo priests in order to make contact with her lost son — she must discover from Michael why he acted as he did — Jane and Brian show up in lukewarm pursuit.
The problem isn’t with the core idea — a family coping with grief and trauma — but with the treatment of that overwhelming sadness, or the lack of treatment. Everyone warns Harriet about the dangers of messing with Voodoo, yet that ritual leads only to the flashback of what Harriet already knew. She came all the way to Brazil for that? And we came all the way to Pasadena? She could have at least been threatened with being boiled in a pot, or something.
Yael Pardess’ set design includes screens that allow romantic Brazilian images to wash over us — and moving shots from the rear of an Ipanema cab place us in a kind of ride-film — perhaps a shrewd attempt by director Sheldon Epps to distract us from the lack of any serious investigation unfolding onstage.
At intermission, a teenager sitting between his parents in the row behind me, was shaking his head. “It’s just kind of overwritten,” he told them. “And overacted.” That sounded truer to me than almost anything I’d heard in the theater to that point.
For reasons she chooses not to explain, director-adapter Amanda Marquardt (with Adam Neubauer) stages excerpts from every death scene sifted from Shakespeare’s canon — and there are a lot of them. The piece is called Not to Be, now at Zombie Joe’s Underground in North Hollywood. It’s a romp, a macabre variation of what the Reduced Shakespeare Company does with perhaps more craft but no less humor. Nine barefoot actors in jeans and white tops fly through scenes from Macbeth to Hamlet, with pit stops at Troilus and Cressida, Romeo and Juliet, all of the history plays, and more.
Some of the daggers are mimed, while the rapiers in Hamlet’s (Mark Nager) climactic duel with Laertes (Paul Etuk) appear in their rubber-tipped steel incarnations. Some plastic intestines are thrown around the stage. Top billing, however, should go to the prop blood capsules. The actors start out clean-scrubbed. By play’s end, they are are saturated in the red goo, as is the plastic sheet that covers the mat on which they convulse, gasp, scream, choke, shudder and engage so gleefully in eye-rolling paroxysms of agony. A few scenes simply entail an actor appearing and trembling to his or her death, blackout.
I wish the company were better with the language, but the 60-minute dance of death, accompanied by Neubauer’s pleasingly frivolous soundtrack of light classical music, make a virtue of the relentless. It has the same effect as the British company, Forced Entertainment, and a piece called Exquisite Pain, which they performed as a reading of Sophie Calle’s diary. That work was a description by the author of everything that had ever gone wrong — terrible accidents, slow, agonizing diseases of loved ones — so that the stories’ cumulative effect became comical. The emotional distance is the antidote to lunacy from the ravages of life and death.
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And so it is here, though perhaps with a smidgen more campiness. (The princes in the tower of Richard III are puppets that dangle out of the stage manager’s booth.) The live actors, however (who also including Jamey Hecht, Gus Krieger, Nathan Dean Snyder, David Macrae, Leslie Josette, Jillian Burgos, and Lydia Muijen) possess a ferocious commitment to their many, many downfalls, so, in this production, the word committed has a double meaning.
My English grandmother hated Shakespeare. “All that killin’, ” she would complain. I wish she could have lived to see this show. I’ll bet she’d have found it to be perversely curative. Or not to be.
THE NIGHT IS A CHILD | By CHARLES RANDOLPH-WRIGHT | At the PASADENA PLAYHOUSE, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena | Through October 4 | (626) 356-7529
NOT TO BE | By WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE | Compiled by ADAM NEUBAUER and AMANDA MARQUARDT | ZOMBIE JOE’S UNDERGROUND, 4850 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hlywd. | Through September 13 | (818) 202-4120