The Playgoer: REVIEW: The Dark at the Top of the Stairs

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Saturday, April 21, 2007

REVIEW: The Dark at the Top of the Stairs


The Dark at the Top of the Stairs
by William Inge
directed by Jack Cummings III
presented by Transport Group
at The Connelly Theatre

I'm very glad I had a chance to check out the much-praised revival of Inge's The Dark at the Top of the Stairs before it closes Saturday (tonight!). This is exactly the kind of rigorously reimagined yet respectful staging of an old repertory classic that is common in Europe, but is all too rare on the New York stage. That the Off-Off B'way Transport Group manages to mount this ambitious project so lovingly with a minimum of resources (as opposed to a generous budget of an official state theatre, or even a decently-subsidized one) is all the more impressive.

We rely on these intrepid companies like the Transport, and the Mint, and the Keen (and, lately, the Pearl) to remind us what our national repertory is. That is, what it could be, beyond star-driven $100-a-pop spectacles of overblown nostalgia affairs on Broadway. (Which are invariably woefully misguided and miscast, or just pathetically lame and phoned-in.) Rather than treating the work of past American dramatists as "chestnuts" from a "simpler time," the best of these revivals remind us that these too were adventurous and brutally honest playwrights every bit as much as today's crop. Sure, in some plays you have to get past the dramaturgical conventions of an era (like forced happy endings or schematically plotted three-act structures). Just like future audiences--if there are any--will have to get past our conventions and trends. (The wisecracking gay friend? the extended monologue? zigzag chronologies?) But when well-acted and intelligently directed (by which I simply mean taking the play seriously, not reverentially, and treating the playwright as a contemporary not as an icon) those "dated" qualities are much easier to forget about than you might think.

Now I admit many of the productions at the above mentioned companies don't always get the best actors, or the sets they try to cram into their tiny spaces don't help take the play seriously. Sometimes the direction errs too much on the side of respectful (and just saying the words) without being bold enough to reimagine and bring out themes and conflicts beneath the surface. That's why Jack Cummings' staging of "Stairs" is especially admirable and revelatory. Though Inge may today be thought of as Mr. "Chestnut" himself (Picnic, Bus Stop) this is not a naturalistic production. It carefully employs naturalistic acting but in stylized relief against a spare, cold, and lonely landscape of the play's small-town 1920s world. By allowing the characters to frequently play to the audience, for instance, Cummings' exposes their deepest vulnerabilities, letting us see through the veneers they present to their scene partners.

Sandra Goldmark's practically empty yet elegant set is perfectly complementary. I kept thinking throughout how, say, the Roundabout would ruin this play with one of those sets "you want to live in." Lots of antique knick-knacks, evoking some paradise ideal of middle America. Instead, here you are greeted with white screens bordered with unfinished wood. The screens are used well, allowing a distancing and defamiliarizing of certain scenes which take place behind them. For a play so much about quiet inner suffering, about deceit and hiding, this is very appropriately a lonely place to live.

Then there's the play. While it was first performed in 1957, Inge wrote it about ten years earlier. So, far from an "Eisenhower-era" salute to can-do happiness, it's riddled with that disaffection and disillusionment that marks so many later statements of brooding 1940s postwar art. (Film noir, for example.) Largely considered an autobiographical play, "Stairs" is the story of a "typical" American middle class family...falling apart. The father loses his job, hits his wife, and leaves. The daughter, just coming of age, has massive anxiety about sexual awakening, and we watch her very first date go tragically wrong. Faced with the prospect of being a single mom and abandoned wife (in an era and place where divorce is still not talked about), Mrs. Flood begs her sister and brother and law to take her in, but they resist, as if fearful that the taint of one marriage's failure will prove contagious for their own. (Jay Potter's performance, by the way, of the brother-in-law is a masterpiece of pre-modern manic depression. Only a stylized approach could bring it out, yet it is utterly truthful and recognizable.) Her sister does eventually bond with her, long enough to reveal how her husband hasn't "touched" her for three years and she's never experienced an orgasm. (The laugh the formidable Michele Pawk gets as the character obviously symbolically rips off her corset to, finally, breathe, is well earned.)

Making the play even more unusual all this is effectively told through the perspective of the young boy Sonny. Or at least, Cummings' staging manages to suggest Sonny's point of view throughout. With considerable stage time and complex scenes the actor Jack Tartaglia (obviously no teenager passing, but a real 8-10 year old) is quite impressive and succeeds in holding the stage. The tableaux Cummings creates for him help. Such as the quite frightening face off between little Sonny, in a mini-suit, staring down his tall, tall father when he finally returns in shame. It's the American drama's iconic "father-son" conflict from O'Neill to Shepard in a flash.

Such deliberate, even if at times a bit stilted and awkward, tableaux are frequent, yet totally organic and enhancing of something in the text. When the daughter's date arrives (a charming Jewish cadet!) bedecked in his heroic uniform, he launches into a long monologue that soon takes him from pleasantries and boasting into his greatest doubts and anxieties. It's an extraordinary dramatic gamble on Inge's part, to have this character "open up" so fast. But Cummings avoids any stretching of credibility by embracing how...well, weird the moment is. He has the whole family fan out in a carefully composed portrait, the lighting (freely and expressively designed by R. Lee Kennedy) softens and dims to highlight the speaker's own contrast of dark sentiments and light delivery. The formal intimacy of the moment communicates that everyone is falling in love with the dashing young man. But you also just know something bad is going to happen. And it eventually does, of course.

I sense from some audience reaction and some reviews, that many have found the direction just too odd for their tastes. But I maintain it's thoroughly in tune with the play. It's just a very personal vision of it. One that truly raises the text and enhances it with the sensibility of someone from our own time showing us what's still vital and compelling in this old play.

Even though some of my fellow bloggers might say (in this case amusingly) good riddance to the old, and focus more on the new American classics-to-be, I do feel strongly that the strengthening (and broadening and revisiting) of a national repertory is in the interest of all of us. We have a theatrical tradition in this country. Or, to be more accurate, several of them. We need to take care of those traditions to preserve them, learn from them, and celebrate the role of theatre in our culture. All that will help new playwrights too, one way or another.

Transport Group's work in this particular, largely forgotten, old play is exemplary in pointing the way in how to make the best works of our heritage not just (to use a tired term) "relevant", but something even more important--personal.

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