Playwright-director Guy Zimmerman dedicated his new 60-minute play in two scenes, The Black Glass, to the protesters of Occupy Wall Street. This is a fair indication of where his sympathies lie when it comes to the kinds of corporate CEOs who run things, or, in the case of Zimmerman's central character, runs a company that produces "petroleum-based products for the home." Donald Bentham (John Lacy) forms the centerpiece of Zimmerman's theater poem, which is really this exec's fever-dream, loosely based on Agamemnon.
Bentham is a superman who similarly sacrifices his daughter, Joanna (Diana Wyenn), to a celestial/demonic power — not to the goddess Artemis, as in the case of Agamemnon sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia in exchange for winds to carry his Greek naval fleet, stranded in Aulis, to Troy, but to a thin, rakish fellow, Thomas McGivern (Brad Culver), sporting dyed streaks of red in his dark hair, who has connections to the porn industry. Like Agamemnon, Bentham makes the sacrifice to stoke the winds of war — in his case, to raise enough capital that he may drive out his competition, which is still residing in a "white tower" across an urban canyon of downtown L.A.
"Porn and war, desire and aggression — it's how the human race staggers forward," somebody says. It doesn't matter much who: This is the kind of play, in the tradition of Bertolt Brecht's Lehrstücke, where any character can utter a poeticism that reflects the author's view of the world.
At the start of the play — which just closed at Open Fist Theatre in a co-production with Padua Playwrights, as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival — Bentham stands by the window of his own downtown glass tower, blackmailed and possessed by demons. In addition to McGivern, these include a lesbian couple (Elizabeth Greer and Martha Demson). One works for "the competition," the other has just come from a resort in Spain, the same country where Joanna has been residing "in a convent."
Bentham now has to face the sight of Joanna performing in porno video clips that could disgrace him and his company — a reasonable moral retribution for his sacrifice of her to these devils in exchange for their money. Bentham's nightmare, well-enacted by the performers in Zimmerman's choreographic staging and with the support of John Zalewski's haunting sound design, is that of a doomed man trying to reckon with his multidimensional bankruptcy.
It's a morality play, like Dr. Faustus: "You've turned people's lives into commodities," somebody accuses Bentham — which is why being blackmailed by a porno peddler is so just. Wish he had a better defense than, "I will own that tower [the one owned by the competition]. I will bring them to their knees."
Somebody pipes in with a thematic anthem: "We live on the blood and dreams of our children."
Zimmerman's absorbing, stylish staging helps mask the singularity of his play's perspective. Were he to give Bentham the capacity to answer, like Agamemnon, with as much relish as his demons, he might have an important work in his grasp.
Over at the outdoor stage of Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga Canyon resides another "captain of industry" who similarly gloats about vanquishing his competition, in George Bernard Shaw's elegiac comedy Heartbreak House, beautifully staged by Ellen Geer. Alan Blumenfeld, a character actor of the first rank, portrays the business tycoon, Boss Mangan, who claims, like so many others in this puddle of listless intelligentsia passing time on a wacky north Sussex estate in 1914, that his heart is breaking. As he weeps, the mistress of the house, Mrs. Hushabye (Melora Marshall), with whom he's so pointlessly smitten, replies simply, "Don't cry, I can't bear it. Have I broken your heart? I didn't know you had one. How could I?"
Both Zimmerman and Shaw share an earnest contempt for the abuses of capitalists like Bentham and Mangan. Across a century's divide, both authors grapple head-on with what Zimmerman describes as the commodification of people, which Shaw filters through the prism of a young, poor visitor to the estate, Ellie Dunn (Willow Geer), aiming to marry Mangan for his money — in retribution for the way he robbed her father and his friends through his business tactics.
And each of their plays is populated by strident characters.
The key difference between the plays is that so many of Shaw's people reveal themselves by the end of the play to be quite the opposite of how they were presented at the outset. And this is the source not only of Heartbreak House's richly textured humor but of Shaw's keen understanding of how complex and contradictory strident people can be.
Shaw wrote the play in 1917, as World War I was decimating Europe. It was a war he warned against vehemently at its outset, running smack into the whirling blade of British patriotism. By war's end, in the midst of national exhaustion and disillusion, Shaw was held up as a prophet and visionary for his early opposition to the war.
Heartbreak House's subtitle, A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes, refers to the gallery of unrequited loves and the ennui of its philosophizing characters lifted from Anton Chekhov's 1904 The Cherry Orchard. In the latter play, as the estate owner Madame Ranevskaya and her brother, Leonid Gaev, walk through the woods at dusk, they hear a disturbing clamor in the distance, and speculate that it must be the sound of a bucket falling down some distant mine, or something. Whatever it is, so far away on the horizon, Ranevskaya feels it as an omen of something cataclysmic. Scholars have since argued that Chekhov was anticipating the Russian Revolution, which would leave thousands of oblivious Ranevskayas and Gaevs shot dead in ditches.
By the end of Heartbreak House, the bombs of the war are dropping while Shaw's quasi-Chekhovian characters sit around languorously, fearlessly, still making puns. It lends the impression that, in contrast to Chekhov's comedy of doom, Shaw anticipated the English muddling through on a blend of imperious wisecracks, self-deprecation and muted optimism.
And here we are, almost 100 years later, still trying on TV and in popular magazines to fathom the incomprehensible exigencies of love and marriage and life expedience, while the bombs of war keep dropping. Everything has changed, and nothing has changed.
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There's not a weak link in Ellen Geer's ensemble of 15. Willow Geer's Ellie transforms from pipe-voiced, broken-hearted wallflower to female dragoon with astonishing veracity. Aaron Hendry's Randall Utterword turns in a masterfully posturing turn, swooning for Mrs. Hushabye's cavalier and dismissive sister, Ariadne Utterword (Susan Angelo) — though she's married to his brother.
Leading the pack is Hushabye and Ariadne's octogenarian father, played by crusty William Dennis Hunt with a kind of brittle dogmatism that allows Shaw's wit to sparkle under this nighttime sky. Rarely will you find a performance of such nimble humor and gentle pathos, a Lear who's nobody's fool. Rarely will you see a production of such an intricate comedy of ideas rendered so clearly, and with such a clear purpose.
HEARTBREAK HOUSE | By George Bernard Shaw | Theatricum Botanicum | 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga Canyon | in repertory through Sept. 30; call for schedule | (310) 455-3723 | theatricum.com
THE BLACK GLASS | By Guy Zimmerman | Padua Productions at Open Fist Theatre Company, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd. | closed.