At the age of 80, Donald Freed is one of the oldest living American playwrights. A consequence of his age and his prolific output, Freed now offers a legacy of intense and erudite psychological dramas boiled in the cauldrons of politics and his Freudian-Jungian view of how people behave. His plays have been staged around the world. His first one premiered in 1960 at the Coronet Theatre on La Cienega Boulevard — an adaptation of Crime and Punishment. Through the decades, his plays — often snapshots from an epic moment of American history — have made their way from the Los Angeles Theatre Center to the Shaw and Abbey theaters, respectively of London and Ireland, plus Milwaukee Rep, Denver Theatre Center, Provincetown Playhouse and on, and on, with titles some may recognize: Circe and Bravo, The Quartered Man, Alfred and Victoria (A Life), White Crow (Eichman in Jerusalem) and Secret Honor.
Back in 2000, the Victory Theatre Center premiered his play American Iliad, in which John F. Kennedy, like a phantom in Macbeth, visited the ailing Richard Nixon on a golf course. Among the themes explored in that work, also populated by Marilyn Monroe and J. Edgar Hoover, was how and when the United States lost its innocence. Freed posited that it was on November 22, 1963, when Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas. But anyone who's seen the film Lincoln will think it was a much earlier date, or might even question the presumption that the United States ever had innocence to lose.
Freed may well be the American equivalent of South Africa's Athol Fugard. Both playwrights are of the same generation and much the same age, and in play after play, each keeps asking what happened to their respective nations.
Each author's country underwent a surge of hope during the youth of each writer — with Lyndon Baines Johnson's Great Society in the United States, and the abolition of Apartheid in South Africa. And then, according to the collected works of both playwrights, something went terribly wrong.
Fugard's latest play, The Blue Iris (presented here last year at the Fountain Theatre), was a portrait of despair set amidst the ashes of a burned home in South Africa's drought-stricken Karoo region. There were three characters, an aging white farmer, the ghost of his wife and his black maid. The indigenous blue iris represented a singular vestige of beauty and hope, blooming in scorched earth and captured in a painting made by the wife. That painting was remarkably preserved even through the fire that engulfed their home and took her life. And yet, her ghost returned to explain, that blue iris contains a poison that can fell a herd of cattle. That was the point of her painting, she said: not a pretty picture but illusory, toxic beauty. Fugard had never before offered such a despondent view.
Freed's latest play, Tomorrow, shares Fugard's cynicism but comes etched in slightly more nostalgic hues, as it's set in 2000, in a West Hollywood manse that's now part shrine, part time-capsule for American theater's now-faded years of glory. The year 2000 is significant because, at the play's start, we learn that the Supreme Court has just handed George W. Bush the presidency of the United States — one of the epic moments of American history that Freed so enjoys using as a frame for his dramas, and a ruling he equates with the treacheries in Macbeth, the oft-quoted play-within-the-play used in counterpoint to the various collapsing empires enshrined in Tomorrow.
While Fugard's Blue Iris looked up at an empty sky, Freed's play looks inward towards interiors and into mirrors and stages and illusions of who we were and what we've become. The play is being premiered in a collaboration among three organizations: the English company York Theatre Royal and two local troupes, Rogue Machine and the Skylight Theatre.
It, too, concerns the end of things. It too has three characters. All of them are actors. Two are descendants of the Booth dynasty — yes, that crackpot tribe of thespians, one of whom gunned down President Lincoln at a play, of course — and a younger, celebrated actress who wanders into their tomb. The Booths include Jamie (Geoffrey Forward), who has confined himself to exile among his posters, playbills and moth-eaten costumes after freezing up during the "dagger scene" while playing Macbeth. He's never lived down the humiliation, and he now devotes his life to logging with painstaking accuracy the movements of a family elder, possibly his aunt, the heralded Abby Booth, played by Salome Jens — herself a living stage legend.
Into their museum wanders the younger Laura Keating (Jenn Robbins), an actress who ensnared Abby's admiration in a Tennessee Williams play and who now has the opportunity of a lifetime to play Lady Macbeth in a London production that will also be adapted into a movie with the same actors. She's come to the Booths for coaching, and so the play, largely a series of acting lessons, is like a cross between Terrence McNalley's Master Class, in which aging diva Maria Callas destroys a series of her pupils, or tries to, and John O'Keefe's Times Like These (also a Bush-era reflection), in which a once-famous Jewish actress now banned from public performance in Nazi Germany hides in the shadows to coach her comparatively mediocre gentile husband to play Petrucchio and then Hamlet on the Nazi-German stage.
All of these works address theater's mirror effect when the sky seems to fall — the capacities of art, like Shakespeare's fools, to tell the truth in riddles, sometimes directly in front of the tyrants' faces. In all of these plays, the stage is a kind of beacon.
This is why among Abby's pet projects is to gather funding for an American National Theater — a project she lives to see gutted. Explains Jamie: "She said that there will never, can never, be an American National Theatre until there is an American National soul."
Despite the play's poeticism and insight, and its tender staging by Damian Cruden, this is the kind of slightly tendentious pedantry — punctuated throughout the play — for which theater devotees have earned a sour reputation as relics orbiting Jupiter, like detritus from a bygone time.
The larger point of Tomorrow is the sly, snaking dance among Shakespeare's plays, American history and the history of the American stage.
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In her very enthusiastic portrayal, Robbins' Laura shows a depth and poise suggesting she really could play Lady Macbeth. The question is, why should we care? Why should this woman's career opportunity be the centerpiece of a drama about the end of a dynasty and possibly the collapse of American virtue? It might be more fun if the Booths wanted to rip her to shreds, but they don't, because, in a way, she is their future. This idea is far more symbolic and hopeful than intriguing or dramatic.
Tomorrow is a drama in which everybody on stage wants everybody else to succeed. And so it becomes a series of individual struggles, between a person and his or her own talents. In that lies a core of kindness in Freed's soul, almost like Chekhov, which is rare. At the same time, it does flatten his marvelous play, somewhat.
Forward's Jamie has an appealing, ghoulish clenched-jaw tension throughout. I can't speak objectively about Salome Jens — I've been watching her on the local stage for decades, and in my view, she can do no wrong. But that's largely because she is living proof of the American theater's legacy, that her character speaks of so eloquently.
TOMORROW | By Donald Freed | Presented by Rogue Machine, York Theatre Royal and the Skylight Theatre Company, 1816 ½ Vermont Ave., Los Feliz | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. | Through April 21 | (702) 582-8587, ktcla.com