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Aging Disgracefully

Howling into a difficult future: Mozo and Mandell in Trying (Photo by Michael Lamont)

Excuse me for remounting the old “L.A. is a theater town — really!” warhorse that observers who’ve been here for a decade or two, including me, drag out of the stable every year or two, but the local stage is firing on all cylinders this month — really! From the exquisite psychological realism in John Patrick Shanley’s Danny and the Deep Blue Sea (speaking of warhorses) at the tiny Elephant Theatre Company, and the sassy romantic comedy of Charles Mee’s Limonade Tous les Jours, just closed at 2100 Square Feet but reopening somewhere else shortly, to the skillful jocularity of Independent Shakespeare Company’s open-air offerings by the Bard in Barnsdall Park, to the finely tuned machinery of farce in Daniel Goldfarb’s Modern Orthodox at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills, to the crowd-pleasing Orwellian spectacle laced into Wicked at the Pantages, this is all happening pre-season, which is very unusual. New York and Britain haven’t even rolled in their heavy artillery yet: The Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre of Scotland are packing their suitcases for visits to UCLA Live, and the Wooster Group’s Hamlet is slated for REDCAT early next year.

Add to the evidence another pair of glorious productions — one at Burbank’s midsize Colony Theatre and the other over at Santa Monica’s City Garage — that both grapple in contrary ways with the plight of aging.

The centerpiece of Joanna McClelland Glass’s two-character autobiographical drama, Trying, at the Colony, is 81-year-old Francis Biddle (Alan Mandell). The play, which unfolds entirely in Biddle’s rented Georgetown study, is set in 1967 and 1968, when Biddle is prepping to write his memoirs on a life that included being the private secretary to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, FDR’s attorney general, and the leading American judge in the Nuremberg trials.

“I don’t have the resources for this,” is one in a series of Biddle’s running motifs uttered by Mandell with a blend of comedic urgency and despair. Others in his repertory include, “I have very little strength left, and what I have is precious” — Biddle’s ploy to keep himself at arm’s length from human involvements, due to his waning physical and emotional strength. “I’m on my knees, Sarah,” he says to his newly hired 25-year-old assistant (Rebecca Mozo), who is pregnant and suffering a troubled marriage. “Do not involve me in your problems. It’s not that I’m indifferent,” he explains before hoisting up another of his reprises as if in a lounge act for a captive audience: “I’m in the process of leaving this life. The exit sign is flashing over the door, and the door is ajar.” This could easily be played with humorless gravitas, but Mandell’s interpretation infuses self-indulgence with a twist of mockery. It’s very wry, and very funny, in the same black-comedy boneyard as the proverbial hypochondriac’s epitaph: “See!”

“Sir, really I do understand,” she replies, approaching the outer limits of her patience.

“No, I don’t think you can,” he says, patronizing her. “You’re at a disadvantage in that I have been young, but you have never been old.”

Had Oscar Wilde written this play, lines such as this, punctuated throughout Trying, would be included in anthologies of epigrams.

Sarah, a stand-in for the author, is a courteous, spirited Canadian who summons all the self-control and famous Canadian civility she can muster to field the digs and petty abuses that Biddle wields under the cover of old age. He gleans autobiographical snippets from her — that she’s from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, for example — before he goads her about the imagined, quaint customs of the Saskats. His water-torture humor is among the reasons he’s been through a dozen assistants in the past year.

Near the end of Act 1, she finally explodes, shaming him for his Ivy League condescension of her public-college education. Has he forgotten his sympathy for Virginia’s coal miners during the Great Depression? His once courageous actions had him labeled “a traitor to his class.” And what about his switch from the Republican Party of his forefathers to join FDR’s Democrats? What does all that mean if he subjects his loyal, punctual employees to petty derision?

Has he forgotten?

That’s the question at the play’s heart. What are the effects of the tiny synapses in the brain snapping, one by one, year after year? Where does that leave one at the age of 81? Biddle picks up the phone and can’t remember whom he’s calling, yet his memories of Göring at the Nuremberg trials, blanket on his knees, are vivid.

Both The New York Times’ Charles Isherwood, reviewing the off-Broadway production, and Deborah Klugman, in her initial bullet review of the Colony production for this newspaper, found the play unsatisfying. Klugman wrote that Trying was “unprobing” while, in a similar vein, Isherwood remarked that Biddle’s luminous history — encapsulated in a letter opener given to his family by Henry James — goes largely unexamined in the unspoken bathos of one generation being washed out to sea, while a new generation floats in.

Trying, however, makes no claim to be a political drama about the FDR administration, or Biddle’s place in it. The play isn’t so much about history as about how it’s remembered, which is an entirely different matter. It’s about random memories that Biddle jots into a notebook that may or may not one day make it into the Library of Congress, because our national memory is as frayed and incomplete as our personal recollections. Isherwood is correct about the unspoken bathos, possibly underscored by what was widely reported to be Fritz Weaver’s dour portrayal of Biddle in the New York production. At the Colony, however, the play’s sentimentality is largely offset by Mandell’s scrupulous Beckettian attention to arthritic physical details, like a tragic clown, and a superiority complex beautifully woven into brittle sarcasm.

Director Cameron Watson’s mostly astute direction suffers a bit of needless sugarcoating from Bach’s lugubrious cello sonatas and Schumann’s pretty piano “Kindersehnen” in a regrettably obvious way. Against this, however, Mozo’s performance stands tall for its self-respect and dignity in the hurricane of Biddle’s abuse.

Trying is a poem, inscribed around a tempestuous, tender relationship between a young woman and an old man, about the distinctions between who we are and who we were. Such slippage is the tragedy of all people, and all nations. This idea, plus two magnificent performances, is more than enough to quell the play’s inclinations toward the generic emotions summoned by a funeral just because it’s a funeral.

Christopher Hampton wasn’t the only one to adapt Choderlos de Laclos’ 18th-century novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses— written as a series of letters — into a play. The late German poet-playwright Heiner Müller composed a “text” named Quartet, which has been translated by Marc Von Henning in City Garage’s gorgeous production, directed by Frédérique Michel.

It’s very German. Where Trying is largely punctuated by repartee, Quartet consists of massive blocks of words, making it something of a literary cliff for audiences to scale. Aging former lovers Valmont and Merteuil (roles shared by Troy Dunn and Sharon Gardner) appear in whiteface and Josephine Poinsot’s lavish, baroque costumes. Through their torrents of language, they play-act multiple parts in a jealousy duet — challenges and counterchallenges for Valmont to de-virginize a Catholic novice (Mariko Oka) and corrupt the “femme de presidente” — all motivated by Merteuil’s desire to marry, and the couple’s mutually held fears of aging and insignificance. (The play is marbled with references to death and physical decay.)

With a large wooden crucifix planted center stage, against which Oka is suspended naked at the play’s opening, this is clearly a pitched battle between mortals and God, between impotence and immortality. Of course the mortals realize they’re on the losing end, cemetery-bound, and this is what motivates their nihilistic swipes at God and determination to push through the constraints of religious and social decorum through such games as sodomizing innocent little girls and gleefully destroying the reputations of lonely women succumbing to sexual temptation. This, and the masks they don while carrying out their brutalities, makes for a perfectly reasonable explanation for why pornography is a multibillion-dollar industry.

Michel stages all of this as a kind of dance with moments of faux-Kabuki formality, performed with strikingly lucid restraint and intelligence by Dunn and Gardner. Oka beautifully plays the added character of “Player,” along with David E. Frank, who, behind a golden mask, makes droll comments on the action.

The combination of taut choreography and freewheeling role playing, in conjunction with a pair of chandeliers suspended against the sky-blue backdrop of Charles A. Duncombe’s set and lighting design, makes for a very elegant and thoughtfully textured event.

TRYING | By JOANNA McCLELLAND GLASS | Presented by COLONY THEATRE, 555 N. Third St., Burbank | Through September 9 | (818) 558-7000

QUARTET | By HEINER MÜLLER, translated by MARC VON HENNING | Presented by CITY GARAGE, 1340½ Fourth St. (alley), Santa Monica | Through September 23 | (310) 319-9939

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