Seminar at the Ahmanson and Creation at Boston Court, Reviewed
PHOTO BY CRAIG SCHWARTZAya Cash and Jeff Golblum in Seminar
The essay "A Bolt From the Blue," which opens neurologist Oliver Sacks' 2007 book Musicophilia, is the story of Tony Cicoria, an orthopedic surgeon in upstate New York who was struck by lightning in 1994. This would seem to be the story that inspired Kathryn Walat's new play Creation, commissioned by Yale Rep and developed at the O'Neill Playwrights Conference and at Pasadena's Theatre @ Boston Court, where it's now playing.
Explains Sacks in a 2007 interview in Harper's:
"Here was a man, a surgeon who never had much interest in music but occasionally listened to rock & roll. One day he was struck by lightning and survived, apparently without any long-lasting problems. But about three weeks later, he developed an insatiable passion for the piano, and for Chopin in particular. He plays daily and recently debuted his own composition, the Lightning Sonata. What had happened in his brain to create this sudden and overwhelming passion for music?"
This is almost precisely the premise for Walat's Creation, though her central character, 40-year-old Ian (Johnathan McClain), is a biology teacher who, after being struck by lightning, becomes obsessed with the cello, and with the cello music he hears continually in his head. It's not the kind of music that makes you want to crawl under a rock (as used by U.S. forces to torture enemy combatants) but laconic strains, solemn and romantic, set against a backdrop of piano or orchestra and recalling Faure's Elegy, capable of arousing such feelings of bliss that they inspire the former empiricist to believe they may have been placed there by God. (The original music and sound design is by Bruno Louchouarn.)
In addition, Ian develops a sweet tooth — specifically, a penchant for Tootsie pops.
The questions posited by both Sacks' essay and Walat's play are what happened to the man's brain after the lightning struck, and where exactly lies the source creativity that inspires poets and composers to share the voices in their heads. Is it neurological, as in the structure of pathways in the brain? Or is it, to quote Ian's term that makes his wife's teeth itch, "divine"?
Ian's wife, Sarah (Deborah Puette), has settled into a career as a pathologist. The verb "settled" is the slightly patronizing attitude toward her career held by her colleague Amal (Ethan Rains), a hot-shot Lebanese neurologist. After determining that Ian remains cogent and healthy, and that the lightning caused some minor changes in his brain, Amal chides Sarah that her decision to be a pathologist — i.e., to work exclusively with patients after their demise, to study tissue under glass for evidence of trouble ex post facto — is a decision to stay out of the fray, out of the cusp between life and death, where one can use science to save people. This stirs in Sarah vague feminist rumblings, offset by her growingly pronounced desire to have a baby. As Amal points out, her career decision can more easily accommodate motherhood than, say, her being a surgeon.
For Sarah, this point understandably has a certain sting, even accounting for Amal's smugness. Their debate forms the backdrop to her irritation and weariness at finding herself with a changed husband, a would-be paleontologist with his head once firmly screwed onto his shoulders, who's now suddenly convinced that he's Edward Elgar. He not only shuns his job but also becomes obsessed with buying classical music, buying a cello and struggling in vain to play it.
And though the lightning strike causes a sudden and welcome surge in his libido, all that sexual energy soon becomes channeled into hearing and, eventually, dictating the music in his head. This behavior manifests itself in frequent visits to a lonely, gay music student and composer, Zach (Adam Silver). For Zach, composition starts with a series of pencils at a desk, then waiting for the music to come, with the wrenching hope that he can enter the creative zone.
For Ian, however, creating music is as easy as listening. It's just a matter of copying what God has so bountifully provided, or so says this man who once railed against Christian zealots. This is just one of many false paradigms. It's as though, in feeling spirituality, Ian has become the embodiment of the zealotry he once opposed. If his wife actually believes that, as she appears to, as a justification for her feelings of abandonment and her eventual flirtation with Amal, she's simply reducing the complexities of what's happening to her husband for her own emotional expedience.
It's true, like any obsessive, he's a bit of a pill, but there's no larger view on her part, nor on that of the play itself.
Sacks' writings have held a strong grip on dramatists' imaginations for decades. Harold Pinter's 1982 play A Kind of Alaska was based on Sacks' Awakenings — a study of clinical patients emerging from catatonia. (That same work inspired Penny Marshall's 1990 movie starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro.) Peter Barnes' play Drummer was adapted from Sacks' essay on Tourette's syndrome, "Witty Ticcy Ray." Sacks' 1985 compilation of clinical studies on aphasia and agnosia, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, inspired a chamber opera of the same title by Michael Morris, Michael Nyman and Christopher Rawlence, as well as a different adaptation by director Peter Brook, L'homme Qui ... . Irish playwright Brian Friel spun his 1994 drama Molly Sweeney, about the trauma inflicted upon a blind woman from surgery that restored fragments of her sight, from Sacks' essay "To See and Not See," contained within his compilation of studies An Anthropologist on Mars.
Molly Sweeney is probably the best of these stage adaptations for its ability to preserve the tone of Sacks' writing — eloquent, kind and conveying an almost childlike wonder at how the mind works, at how it connects to the heart, at what becomes enhanced when a tiny corner of the brain is found deficient. These are stories of neurological give and take that address the mysteries of personality.
In Molly Sweeney, everybody is kind, and through that kindness a tragedy unfolds from one doctor's hubris, and one husband's infatuation, as both try to restore a woman's sight. Like blind Tiresias in Oedipus the King, Molly was seeing just fine before they intervened.
Michael Michetti directs a fine, lean production of Creation — tenderly wrought, subtly performed, brimming with ideas. Yet these people are small and slightly tawdry, and this imposes on Sacks' more generous voice. It's a soap opera posing as an opera.
I'm not sure what happened to Theresa Rebeck's Seminar at the Ahmanson. In New York, on Broadway, with Alan Rickman as the sadistic guru of a high-end workshop for aspiring scribes, there emerged the portrait of a world-weary, sexually precocious, washed-up, literary "leader" of waiting-to-be-abused acolytes. It was a view of a demonic world fueled by jealousy and bitterness containing a single moment of generosity, redemption and purpose — what Ian would have called "divine."
Here, it appears to be in the wrong theater. If Rebeck's endeavor is to invite us into these writers' intimate, awful, internal world, that's hard in a barn where everybody's wearing a body mic. Some of Rebeck's jokes still play, but so what?
I just couldn't make sense of Jeff Goldblum's swaggering performance as the seminar leader. He said mean things jocularly, often delaying the last word of a punchline for a second or two after the sentence it was once attached to. That might have been a character idiosyncrasy, but it sounded like he didn't quite know what he was saying, which might explain the swagger.
Nor could the supporting cast (Aya Cash, Greg Keller, Lucas Near-Verbrugghe and Jennifer Ikeda) offer much support in what looked like a sitcom about writers.
Sam Gold directed the productions both here and in New York. I wonder what he was thinking, and I don't mean that stridently. I really do wonder.
CREATION | By Kathryn Walat | Presented by Theatre @ Boston Court, 40 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena | Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Nov. 11 | (626) 683-6883 | bostoncourt.com
SEMINAR | By Theresa Rebeck | Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn. | Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; through Nov. 18 | (213) 628-2772 | centertheatregroup.org
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