Photo by Anne Fishbein

Laural Meade’s burlesque-vaudeville-drama, Harry Thaw Hates Everybody, has been through several workshops (including stagings at the Los Angeles Theater Center and the Taper), and though it made its official debut a couple of weeks ago, it still feels like a work in progress. And probably always will. Unless, that is, Meade re-conceives it into something more cohesive and digestible for mainstream audiences. Which would probably melt it into a Chicago redux. And I doubt she wants that, given the native frenzy of her theatrical imagination. Meade simply has too much on her mind and in her heart. Thank goodness.

Harry Thaw is a jumble of styles and ideas that flies way too close to the sun, crashes into a mountain, wobbles to its feet, winks, tips its hat and starts dancing to ragtime. Watching two and a half hours of this is perhaps more stunning than satisfying, leaving one with feelings of mild exhaustion mixed with amazement and respect. That’s not bad for a provocative new work bubbling up in such a conservative theatrical era.

The starting point is the true-story 1906 fatal shooting of architect-philanderer Stanford White, in full public view atop Madison Square Gar den, by deranged coal baron Harry Thaw. In Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow refers to the shooting as the “crime of the century” (one of many, it seems), and writer-director Meade undertakes a theatrical examination not only of the murder and the multitudinous possible motives for it, but also of America’s burgeoning industrial age, with its hedonism and poverty. (This was, after all, the era that saw the rise of the Vander bilts and the Astors, the Carnegies and the Mellons, the Rocke fellers and the Du Ponts.) And those are just the play’s psychological and political strata. It also toys with what the press notice aptly refers to as “the capricious world of historical fact.”

Now, that’s a lot of material, but not so excessive as to bloat the play into a formless blob. In fact, Meade grapples strategically with form. She has in her hands a massive wad of ideas, which she could have rolled, like clay, into a ball, hoping that it would cohere — and that would have been a more commercial tack. Instead, Meade has taken a knife and sliced her mass of concepts into four distinctive acts, each in a slightly different style and each telling the story through the viewpoint of a different participant, now dwelling in purgatory.

Act 1 is a vaudeville revue, an outline of Stanford White’s “inspiring, rocketlike rise” narrated (with a lecture–slide presentation, of course) by the narcissistic White himself. Chris Wells’ White is simply Orson Welles’ Charles Foster Kane reincarnated as a clown; his “lecture” is a monument to vanity, punctuated by fatuous pronouncements and bellows of depraved laughter — a performance both ingratiating and lunatic as Wells croons with a twist of perversity, “I could have a million girls” and establishes the play’s dominant theme: “We’re all a bunch of whores!”

Indeed, at age 47 White debauched teenage model Evelyn Nesbit (the perky Anneh B. Gabriel), whose Sidney Biddles Barrow of a mother, Florence (a gentle portrayal by Susan Rubin), guides us through Act 2 — “a living newspaper” that dramatizes events leading up to Evelyn’s marriage to Thaw, played in a delightful cartoon by Daniel T. Parker as a scraggly-haired, wild-eyed imp, prone to fits of infantilism and wife beating. (The barrage of exposition in this act tends to clog, despite Meade’s sometimes strained efforts to loosen it with song and dance and wit.)

Act 3 belongs to Thaw: Despite his shambles of a courtroom defense — in which he demands to use his own script and, when the rest of the quartet walk out on him, has audience members feed him lines — Thaw convincingly exposes the sordid behaviors of his wife and his detractors. The play concludes with the hauntingly beautiful Act 4, given over to Evelyn’s remembrance of events as a demented parade of overlapping scenarios. Scenes play simultaneously in all corners of the theater, as John Zalewski’s sound design creates a ghostly backdrop for Ken Roht’s wondrous choreography, which has the now puppetlike, dead-faced ensemble blending chorus-line moves with Butoh dance.

This decision to slice the play into four distinct styles elevates it structurally into a work of epistemology — a saga calling into question not only the motives for the killing, but the shifting frame of truth itself, particularly as applied to recorded history. But to refer to the play’s Rashomon-like qualities is merely reductive. This isn’t just a story about four limited perspectives adding up to a totality that none of the individual participants can fully comprehend. Rather, Meade’s summation parallels Evelyn’s Act 4 psychic meltdown. This play’s higher truth comes in a soft-shoe version of Edvard Munch’s Der Schrei.

Ultimately, no ball divided into four pieces — however conceptually scintillating those pieces may be — can actually roll very far. Though Meade ties it with string, it’s a bumpy ride. The threads designed to unify the acts are therefore welcome indeed: the dainty Gilbert and Sullivan–era ditties (accompanied on a spinet by Steven Argila, with choral arrangements by Curtis Heard) set in eerie juxtaposition against an unfolding melodrama of jealous rage and domestic violence; Akeime Mitterlehner’s scenic elements (a free-rolling proscenium frame with velvety drapes, small chandeliers with slightly crooked candlesticks) — all contribute to the enveloping, tinny atmosphere of an intimate turn-of-the-century cabaret. And finally there’s the ironic gothic tone, expressed in the performers’ often shit-eating grins, which barely cover their characters’ cruelty, hubris and pain.

Harry Thaw may be a theatrical equation in which the whole is less than the sum of its parts. It is, nonetheless, a must-see, with its savage mirth and social rage. Blending Arthur Miller’s sense of civic outrage with Oscar Wilde’s winking satire, it glitters like a diamond in the rough.

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