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Perform, He Said

Photo by Brian J. Lilienthal

I must confess, I thought I was in for a bad night. In the small, stark confines of Theatre/Theater, the proceedings begin offhandedly, almost haphazardly, with no sprightly pre-show announcements urging us to enjoy the evening or to turn off cell phones. The lights dim, but not significantly. Music heavy on the violins swells and crashes like ocean waves in a storm, and a disembodied narrator's voice begins telling the story in the deadest of deadpans, though it's not really a story, but a series of charged observations delivered in cool, declamatory sentences in Dragnet-like fashion. Actors dressed in black walk onstage with lots of attitude but little fanfare, save a striking blond (Amanda Decker) who pauses, grimaces to an alarming degree, doubles over with some unspeakable pain, and then straightens up and takes her place in the tableau as if nothing has happened. What has happened, or not, is unclear: The ambiguity is every inch Marguerite Duras, the post-postmodern French auteur best known for her screenplay Hiroshima Mon Amour and whose 1969 play/novella, Destroy, She Said, is enjoying its debut American - run in Hollywood, no less. Fine, but I'm already fearing the unbearable heaviness of the whole Euro-postmodern enterprise: the symbolism, the double- and triple-entendres, the minimalism that winds up suffocating from its own lack of dramatic oxygen. In these politically strangled times, I want to breathe big, and I hardly expect to do it tonight. I settle back in my seat and decide to make the most of it.


But I don't have to. Something wonderful happens: This show expands. Over the course of the next 90 minutes, it gives air instead of sucking it out of the room. A quartet of actors steadily enlivens the most static of premises - two men and two women in various states of discontent and/or self-deceit waiting on some kind of deliverance, or apocalypse (in a word, love), in a luxe hotel/spa at the edge of a nameless forest. The ensemble pulls most of the headiness down to earth with a sincerity and hopefulness that is sometimes funny, sometimes touching, but never sentimental - this is postmodernism, after all. The backdrop is plastic sheeting in a harsh blue, the props cold white tables and chairs; director Matthew Wilder keeps the interaction among performers pointed and economical.



But this Destroy, She Said is also human, a quality that feels in this context distinctly American. A collective energy forms among the lost souls to create a mood of expectancy that might waver, but never breaks. Amanda Decker's portrayal of the blond, Elizabeth Alione, is reserved but vulnerable, less Catherine Deneuve and more latter-day Tippi Hedren; when she confesses to a pregnancy gone awry and subsequent recuperation at the hotel, it's a real tragedy, not simply a metaphor. Walter Murray has the juiciest role, as Stein, the almost friendly Svengali of the group; in a delicious irony-within-an-irony, Murray, a black actor who co-founded the San Diego Black Ensemble Theater, portrays a Jew and the most enigmatic figure in the show. Murray plays it straight, embellishing nothing, but his Stein cannot help but be savvy and appealing in ways that Duras never imagined.


Wilder, 37, had to imagine Duras for a good year and a half before he could mount Destroy, She Said in the States. After securing a grant from the French Ministry of Culture, the director initially planned to stage the show in Dallas. "I think the French liked that idea - putting on this very French, high-art kind of show in the middle of Texas to really stick it to W," says Wilder with a laugh. But there were problems with space and timing, and the show eventually relocated to L.A. Things moved swiftly thereafter: Destroy was translated from the French in a matter of weeks by Jim Carmody, director of UC San Diego's doctorate program in theater and a friend of Wilder's.


The show itself rehearsed a standard three weeks, but given the newness of the material, that was not a lot of time. But Wilder, a veteran director in the L.A. theater scene, was confident he had something worth seeing - a piece that challenged and provoked, but not as screed or agitprop. Transposing a foreign period piece from the late '60s, written with an aesthetic that was waning even then, was just what Wilder was looking for. "I've been involved in lots of shows that are in your face, that grab you by the lapels and shake you, clang the alarm bells," says Wilder, citing a recent project, Songs of Joy and Destitution, a piece about the Iraq war. "I wanted to do something every bit as subversive, but different. I wanted something to punch me in the nose, but to whisper. Something with no blood that was very polite and that had something very violent and obscene going on underneath." In Wilder's view, such a work is timeless. "I know there's a danger in doing something that shouts, ‘This is a work of art,' he adds. "But I wanted to do something that goes against the grain, particularly in L.A. Not just entertainment or contemplation, but something else."




DESTROY, SHE SAID | By MARGUERITE DURAS | At THEATRE/THEATER, Fourth Floor, 6425 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood | Through February 13 | (310) 382-0710