OUR TOWN By THORNTON WILDER At SOUTH COAST REPERTORY 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa Through March 28
GROSS INDECENCY: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde By MOISÉS KAUFMAN At the MARK TAPER FORUM 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown Through March 29
The central character of Our Town isn't anybody in Grover's Corners, New Hampshire – the setting of Thornton Wilder's 1938 small-town portrait, now on view at South Coast Repertory. It isn't the Gibbs or the Webb clan (the pair of families who become related by marriage in the course of this saga); not the sweet, simple-minded teenage groom, George (Jesus Mendoza), nor his precocious bride, Emily (Sanaa Lathan); not crusty Constable Warren (Art Koustik), nor the town drunk (Gregory Millar). Rather, the central figure is a stopwatch that dangles from the neck of the Stage Manager-narrator (Kimberly Scott) who oversees the conspicuously theatrical re-enactment of events. (Upon entering the theater, the audience views the actors at the stage's periphery, applying makeup before playing their parts on a Spartan set designed by Michael Devine – a few mismatching chairs and a couple of tables in front of a scrim.)
Time is Our Town's protagonist, as it is in a number of world classics written around or before midcentury. Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood comes to mind, not to mention every play by Anton Chekhov. Time replaces action in these works; a series of incidents unfolds with no central conflict in sight, drawing our attention to life's minutiae, the day-to-day rituals from which we draw meaning and the illusion of stability. The focus may seem tiny, but the concern is ageless. In fact, Our Town, so frequently sugarcoated in productions, is actually a stark wind-up for post-World War II existentialism, for Sartre and Beckett, and director Mark Rucker deserves enormous credit for conveying the looming austerity of Wilder's vision.
At the end of Act 1, Emily refers to a letter from a school friend, addressed to “Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, United States of America, Western Hemisphere, Earth, the Solar System, The Universe, In the Eye of God.” (“And the mailman even delivered it!” Emily exclaims.)
It's a little joke – and a big setup for the play's poetic shift of perspective, from the microscopic to the telescopic. Near play's end, an assembly of dead souls sits patiently in the cemetery – in chairs, dressed in black, staring forward nonchalantly as they are visited by grief-stricken or merely befuddled living relatives. In a scene that never fails to reduce audiences to blubber, young Emily – who has just died giving birth – visits her past, unseen by her youthful father, who bounds in looking for his “birthday girl.” The forlorn Emily wonders why, in her fleeting life, she never paid attention to the things that matter, to the people around her. Under Anne Militello's gentle lights, the scrim transforms from its wash of streaking rain into a canopy of stars, visually supporting Wilder's attribution of Act 3 to Dante's Purgatorio:
Oh stars of glory, constellation steeped in virtue . . . You are so close to the ultimate salvation, Beatrice began, that your eyes must be keen and clear. Therefore, before entering it, look down and see how great a world I have put beneath your feet.
Such is the perspective that ultimately pokes fun at a professor (Hal Landon Jr.) who offers a statistical breakdown of the local population: religion, income, profession, etc. The professor's address is a kind of prophetic joke upon the bloated sociological and ethnic obsessions that fuel so much of our theater and television. When you're looking down from the cosmos, such concerns look pretty small. Call this a play about the Big Time.
Our Town's lyrical beauty rises above Rucker's wobbly production, whose biggest fault lies in the too often strained or mannered performances by his ensemble. Scott's Stage Manager impregnates her narration with so much irony, it unwittingly condescends. Greg Watanabe shows some comic charm as the dullard milkman but lacks the stage presence to fill the auditorium, while Jennifer Parsons' Mrs. Gibbs and Millar's resident alcoholic at least comport themselves with dignity.
Rucker's casting is assertively multicultural (Emily is black, her mother Asian, her dad Hispanic) – here a mixed blessing. True, by Act 3 the anomalies of skin color have been scrubbed away by Wilder's universal emotions, presumably Rucker's point. But that point – reinforcing the sociological mindset that Wilder satirizes – comes at a cost, for it suggests a harmonious American melting pot. If Rucker really believes that, I don't know what planet he's been living on.
Prior to World War II, there was an understanding, at least in the arts, that topics from almanacs and newspapers and courtrooms – i.e., “temporal” matters – were on a lower stratum than “eternal” matters, questions of faith and spirit. But something happened after the war, particularly here and in Britain: Those priorities slowly and subtly got reversed. Perhaps it had something to do with Kenneth Tynan's landmark 1956 review of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger – an influential, laudatory and impassioned document that was also dead wrong – mistaking Osborne's domestic tragedy as a trumpet call for a lost generation, and even describing the author as a “spokesman.” Since Tynan's review, or so it seems, the theater on two continents – running in lock step with the growing litigiousness of special-interest groups – has been nurturing dramas about indignation and entitlement, as though this were really the stuff of tragedy.
Which brings us to Moises Kaufman's Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, at the Mark Taper Forum. This docudrama adds up to a barrage of courtroom testimony and biographical research about the life of Oscar Wilde and the charges of sodomy lodged against him in the 1890s – first by the Marquis of Queensberry, later by the Crown. Narrated and enacted by nine men, Kaufman's drill-team direction is absolutely hypnotic. (At an elongated downstage table sits a quartet of narrators, snapping newspapers in sync, barking out commentary and punctuating the sleek verbal rhythms with all manner of percussion instruments.)
The plot's central triangle involves Wilde (the diminutive Michael Emerson); his lover, poet Lord Alfred Douglas (Mike Doyle); and Douglas' deranged father, the aforementioned marquis (Hal Robinson). Incensed by his son's too-close, too-flamboyant association with Wilde, Queensberry leaves a calling card at the Albemarle Club: “For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite [sic].” Goaded by Douglas, Wilde sues Queensberry for libel in a trial wherein the scribe is obliged to demonstrate how the accusation is unjustified. He can't, and so – in two later trials – Wilde becomes the defendant, facing a malicious press, a Puritan society and charges of “gross indecency.”
Eventually, our stalwart hero wilts under the homophobic lashings. Even his wit betrays him. In a preposterous and pretentious defense, he argues that his debaucheries with pretty, young male prostitutes served noble feelings and high art – and it appears that Kaufman believes him. (The appearance of the smug, beefcake hustlers is an education, muscular hunks draped provocatively in white tunics – obviously an allusion to all those Victorian gyms that I didn't know about before.)
Despite his play's pandering belly flop into melodrama, Kaufman is a tragedian at heart. His Act 1 attempt to hold Wilde responsible for his downfall – a victim of his own arrogance (Wilde lodged the first complaint in court) – is borrowed from the ancient Greeks. A riveting, revealing moment of backfiring testimony has Wilde making a glib, mean joke about a boy too ugly for him to kiss. But while Kaufman the playwright aims for a tragic dimension, depicting a battle between flawed equals – Wilde and his accusers – Kaufman the lobbyist can't, or won't, play fair to the end. For he melts a rather engaging dispute of principles into a rigged popularity contest between odious bigots and their quivering victims. As Wilde rots in prison, his delicate face growing steadily whiter, his voice more tremulous, the spiteful, absurd, victorious Queensberry lacks only a handlebar mustache to twiddle.
But this thread of pep-rally melodrama isn't half as telling as the play's epistemology, which emblemizes where new theater writing has come since the days Our Town grabbed the Pulitzer. Wilde and Wilder were both aesthetes, poets, whereas Kaufman is an empiricist. His play, in the Taper's newsdrama tradition, implies that facts (rather than poetry) equal wisdom. The set itself is decorated with books and newspapers, from which the actors continually cite supporting evidence – assuring us of the play's “truth.” Kaufman stands shoulder to shoulder with Wilder's professor, with his reliance upon research and social statistics. Wilder's eternal concerns about sky and dust now fall into the second tier of importance, reserved for matters more lyrical than factual. I doubt that Our Town, were it written today, would land on a regional stage, let alone on Broadway. Our theater has become, like the citizens of Grover's Corners, too blinded by provincial, temporal concerns to recognize the things that really matter.