Watch on the Rhone

There's a moment in Gertrude Stein's play about a French town during the German Occupation when one character advises another to "just be natural and do your part." It's a gently ironic suggestion, given how the actors in Interact Theater's production of Yes Is for a Very Young Man neither speak naturally nor fully develop their parts. In a play as lyrical as Stein's - described by the author as a story of divided loyalties and families - this approach results in a haziness that, nonetheless, has its moments of poetic clarity.

The story involves neighbors living in the ashes of France's defeat. Denise (Megan Zakar) is an insufferable, declasse bitch who opens the play shelling peas and moaning, "I wish I were rich again!" She beseeches her young brother-in-law, Ferdinand (understudy Rick Gunn), to take her side whenever she argues with husband Henri (Josh Adell); Henri, though, is a bitter loser, declaring his country to be a prison for the occupied French.

Ferdinand is occupied himself - with Constance (Stacy Ray), an enigmatic American painter living in the chateau next door. She's older than he, and he's completely fallen for her. The emotional gap between them is revealed to be a gorge echoing with two words: yes and no. Ferdinand vainly tries to persuade Constance to embrace the yes in life - its possibilities, its impractical dreams. She, though, coolly just says no to Ferdinand's lovesickness and the youthful folly that goes with it.

What unfolds for the rest of the play is an odd and unengaging montage of entrances and exits, all enacted around Yes' center, the American painter. As time goes by, Henri's anger compels him to join the Resistance, where he is abetted by a local man named Georges (James Gleason); armed with a mouthful of excuses, Ferdinand goes to Germany to work in a factory, a decidedly uncool decision for French patriots; Denise remains Denise - an insufferable, declasse bitch who now openly sides with the German occupiers.

By the start of Act 2, Constance has joined the Resistance, while Ferdinand has become anti-German. From then on, time moves rapidly until, before we know it, the Liberation has arrived and everyone's waving little Allied flags. (Except, of course, churlish Denise.) The story might hold more interest were there some suspense - everything speeds so quickly to an already known historical conclusion that we feel we are watching life in fast-forward. Things aren't helped any by the fact that none of the characters really seems to change; they may announce allegiances, but proclaiming such choices isn't the same as making decisions, and so everything assumes an extremely detached tone. By play's end we're left asking, "What was all that about?"

Gertrude Stein does not immediately come to mind when we think of American playwrights. We know her chiefly as a boho salonkeeper, memoirist, art connoisseur and coiner of phrases. (In this last capacity she did more than anyone else to keep the name of Oakland alive in the popular imagination and created the second-most-famous adage about roses.) Yes unquestionably places her in the category of "poetic playwright," as opposed to that of a storyteller like Elmer Rice or a moralist such as Lillian Hellman. To a poetic playwright, such structural nuisances as plot twists, reversals of fortune and coups de theatre are generally alien - this kind of writer couldn't carry a narrative with a wheelbarrow. Instead, the strength of dramatists like Stein rests with their use of language and their airy handling of roman- tic love.

Yes is filled with fragmentary conversations and eccentric repetitions, silences interrupted by sighs. Yesterday's audiences knew these as part of Stein's maddening charm; today's recognize them as Seinfeld dialogue. Interact's production is only partly successful in exploiting the esoteric appeal of Stein's language. It is directed by Lamont Johnson, who appeared with his wife, Toni, in the only previous California staging of this work - at the Pasadena Playhouse in 1946, the year of the playwright's death. (Johnson had met Stein near the end of the war, when she gave him the script and her blessing to stage it.)

When Johnson succeeds, it is mostly thanks to Ray and her ethereal portrayal of Constance; she truly inhabits her character and Stein's elliptical poetics, whereas most of the other cast members mistake volume for passion and fall into a dry, declamatory style that rings cold and hollow against Bradley Kaye's unpleasant garden set of earth-colored blocks accented by white outlines of plants and windows.

Still, Kaye's stage becomes more inviting when the story moves indoors during Act 2 and, as if gaining strength from the set's drawing-room intimacy, the cast members finally begin to spark. While Vicki Sanchez's simple costumes effectively keep us in the period (or at least, they don't put us in the present), there are occasional production miscues that jar or confuse: a 50-star American flag; a program note setting the play's first scene at the month of France's surrender when all the dialogue indicates it's probably a year later; and the impression that the action occurs in Occupied France, even though the setting, Haute-Savoie, fell under Vichy's control.

When France signed the humiliating armistice that split it into Occupied and Unoccupied zones, a historical morality play was instantly born - one, we were told, that pitted a bloodied but unconquerable nation against not only a foreign invader, but the worst instincts of its own people. It was a modern political fable, made especially attractive to Americans because it was, from the safe distance of another country, about how people responded to transcendent evil and how they lived in a house divided.

Throughout World War II and for years afterward, cinema and the theater taught us that the French under Petain hadn't just resisted Germany, they had repelled the temptations of Lucifer himself. A play like Jean Anouilh's Antigone or a film like Henri-Georges Clouzot's Le Corbeau may have allegorically whispered darker suggestions about the Gallic character, but for us the French were always the Free French - emotional people, maybe, but dignified and committed to Roosevelt's Four Freedoms. There were French, of course, who were on speaking terms with the devil - venal politicians, professional reactionaries, and businessmen seduced by temporary political power and wealth, but that was Watch on the Rhine stuff and to be expected in a true-life morality play.

This perception went out the window with Marcel Ophuls' 1971 documentary, The Sorrow and the Pity, which seemed to portray collaborators as the rule rather than the exception, replacing the heroic image of the beret'd Resistance fighter with the boater'd, disgraced Maurice Chevalier - or, later, by a compromised Francois Mitterrand who, we've recently learned, was on more than speaking terms with Vichy.

Stein's play, however, was written earlier, at the end of her life, shortly after the war; she had endured the Occupation in a rural village and saw her adopted country in the heroic light projected by Allied propaganda. How strange, then, that her story, when it approaches politics, is bereft of villains; even the one German soldier who wanders through the village is a strangely benign, almost fatherly figure. Such details certainly make the play a curiosity. Yet in Johnson's hands, it is tantalizingly unsatisfying, performing a service as a museum piece but failing to keep pace with Yes' poetic heartbeat.


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