Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Conceits: Vigils at Woolly Mammoth and The Violet Hour at LiveArts

Noah Haidle's Vigils is about a woman who keeps her dead husband's soul in a box. Richard Greenberg's The Violet Hour is about an obscure publisher who receives a copy machine from the future. What do these plays have in common?

Stay tuned, gentle reader.

I was, until recently, something a fan of Noah Haidle: His play Mr. Marmalade, though a flawed work, was a compelling look at the breakdown of an American family through the uncomprehending eyes of a five-year-old daughter. But Haidle's recent Vigils falls apart in more ways than I care to count: There are poorly conceived characters, annoying characters, characters who aren't characters at all, scenes without a discernible direction, scenes that come from nowhere (and go to the same place), dull repetition, pop-psych platitudes galore, and a barrage of useless and ill-conceived special effects, and finally, an ascension scene. (Ascension scenes are often the last refuge of desperate playwrights: Sarah Ruhl ended Passion Plays: A Cycle with one, and Tony Kushner used it for the climax of Angels in America: Perestroika. A good rule of thumb is that unless one is writing about Peter Pan or Jesus Christ, one should leave the harnesses alone.)

Vigils, currently playing at Washington's Woolly Mammoth Theatre, is like watching a bloody train wreck in slow motion with instant replay; even with its meager ninety-minute running time, the audience has plenty of opportunities to wonder just what the hell went wrong. Haidle's not an awful playwright -- he's too prolific, perhaps, and he seems unable to tell the good in his work from the bad. But Vigils is the sort of unmitigated disaster that not even a talented cast or director can render watchable. Promising careers in the theater have been cut short over less, and deservedly so.

A woman who keeps her dead husband's soul in a box might sustain a ten-minute "Saturday Night Live" sketch. To make it a full evening, however, Haidle gives this premise more padding than a king-sized sleeper sofa. The woman (Naomi Jacobson) delivers a lengthy monologue about keeping her husband's soul in a box, the Soul (Michael Russotto) -- who is named "Soul," in case you missed the plot point -- has several monologues about being kept in the box. The husband's body (Matthew Montelongo), whose relevance to the plot is unclear, narrates his death four times to ever-diminishing returns, and gets his own monologue late in the play about nothing very interesting. By the end, I half-expected the Box to stand and give its own soliloquy. (No such luck.) A child named "Child" (Connor Aikin) appears onstage for just long enough to be murdered, though one suspects the murder is strictly on a philosophical level: Vigils, alas, is that kind of play.

To be fair, there is a character named "Wooer," who provides some welcome activity on the material plane. With a name like "Wooer" one might well expect him to woo the widow, and that's essentially he does. Haidle turns this character into a logorrheic basketcase, the better to squeeze some comic relief from these dismal proceedings, but the effect is ultimately more grating than endearing. The nicest thing I can say -- indeed, the only nice thing I can say -- about Woolly Mammoth's production is that as the Wooer, J. Fred Shiffman (who recently shone as the Head Waiter in Arena Stage's She Loves Me) manages to keep his dignity nearly intact.

Richard Greenberg is another over-prolific, overrated playwright who has written at least one crackling-good drama (Three Days of Rain, if you must know) and an awful lot of dreck. Although the first act of his 2003 opus The Violet Hour -- now playing at LiveArts in Charlottesville -- shows some promise, the second act is beyond bad. Still, with fewer metaphysical constructs and more flesh-and-blood characters on the stage, Greenberg begins with a distinct advantage. A pity, then, to watch him squander it by subjecting those characters to a premise even more sterile and unwieldy than Haidle's soul in a box.

The playwright divides his unsuspecting cast into pairs: A publisher (Matt Fletcher) and his clandestine jazz-singer lover (Richelle Claiborne) cross paths with an aspiring writer (Scott Keith) and his wealthy would-be fiancee (Brandy Maloney). In addition, the publisher has a high-strung assistant (Jude Silveira) in the mold of Franklin Pangborn -- and when it comes to Pangborn homages, I'm afraid "mold" is the operative word. Unsurprisingly, Greenberg has sinister plans for his merry quintet: Into their pleasant romantic comedy, he has inserted a menacing copy machine from the future, which spouts dire pronouncements about the world to come. Naturally -- as far as "naturally" would apply to a Greenberg play -- the machine throws the main character into what passes for a profound existential crisis. If our hero knows the outcome of his most important decision, will he change his mind and decide differently? Does he have a choice at all, or is The Future set in stone? And didn't Rod Serling do this same story once on The Twilight Zone?

The Violet Hour claims to take place in 1919 New York City, though Greenberg never bothers to evoke time or place: Despite his tendency to fetishize the past (usually as A Time When Things Were Better), one suspects he isn't very interested in it. Regardless of when or where his characters live, they always speak with the same flat, neurotic whine, and all their conversations turn on the nagging question, "What did you really mean by that?" Of course, a publisher, a singer, an author and an heiress could be fascinating characters, especially if they live on the cusp of the Jazz Age, and if they have something to do. But in The Violet Hour, they're just typical Greenberg ciphers, at the service of a lousy playwright's fatal fortune-telling machine. I can't blame LiveArts for their production, which is briskly paced, well-directed, generally well-acted (where good acting is possible), and technically sound. The chief problem is the play itself.

Vigils and The Violet Hour both demonstrate the folly of developing a play around a concept. As Aristotle well knew, theater is not especially well-suited to armchair philosophizing, especially if that's all a playwright has to offer. (This might explain why Aristotle wrote treatises on the drama, and left the business of playwriting to Sophocles and Euripides.) Worthwhile theater is about characters and action, not metaphysical conceits. And as Haidle and Greenberg have shown, if a play's characters are dull and its action lacks consequence, the most brilliant ideas in the world won't save it. Not that you'll find brilliant ideas in Haidle or Greenberg, either.

Vigils. By Noah Haidle. Directed by Colette Searls. Ninety minutes, no intermission. At Woolly Mammoth Theatre through March 4. For more information, call (202) 393-3939 or visit

The Violet Hour. By Richard Greenberg. Directed by Kay Leigh Ferguson. Two hours and fifteen minutes, with one fifteen minute intermission. At LiveArts through March 17. For more information, call (434) 977-4177 or visit

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Subscribe to Posts [Atom]