Heart of dimness

Joyce Carol Oates, a journeywoman of American letters who has probably been discussed more carefully than she's been read, has written about rapists, child-killers, and animal mutilators through a poet's eye. Throughout her career, she's been accused of having an obsession with violence, which is correct as far as it goes. Her depiction of brutality is Brontëan, described in a Gothic swirl of expressionistic daubs that's closer to Picasso's Guernica than Goya's cruelly dispassionate portraits of cannibalism. We are always at least one artist's scrim removed from the passionate hatred that drives Oates' anti-heroes and -heroines to action, always disturbed but never quite horrified.

She is prolific in a way that few American writers, male or female, have been in the last 50 years, and restless with the forms she undertakes. Oates has produced novels (at last count, 28 of them), short stories (too numerous to count), criticism, poetry, and plays. That impressive list was composed in descending order of critical and audience acceptance. She has been declared hot stuff for her novels, but relatively little noted for the dozen or so dramas she's produced. In theory, a mastery of the dramatic form should be enough to allow you to create something that will at least grip audiences--if not necessarily offer something to the ages--in virtually all of the diverse avenues through which she's paraded, holding high aloft her silky, sinuous turns of phrase and bull's-eye observations.

Yet when Oates withholds violence in her racial chamber drama Black, given a proficient Texas premiere by Theatre Quorum, there is the feeling not that she's being subtle or taut, but that she's cramming many complex, perhaps unresolvable loose ends into a somewhat contrived evening of theater. In the end, even if her three booze-fueled characters don't resort to violence, their author must at least point its flagrant possibility in their faces--and, of course, the audience's--in the form of that hoariest of Russian dramatic devices: the loaded gun pulled in an otherwise civilized setting.

This is only the second production by Theatre Quorum at the Mesquite Arts Center, and Quorum co-founders Carl Savering and Angela Wilson have wisely chosen veteran Dallas director Cynthia Hestand to preside over this quickly escalating cautionary tale of a couple--a younger white woman and an older black man--who confront the woman's wildly idealistic, tempestuous ex-husband, a white man who still believes he loves her. Hestand also directed the last Open Stage production I saw: Nicky Silver's outrageous and grotesque family comedy Fat Men in Skirts at the old Magnolia Lounge, and she brought a restrained and discerning hand to the excessive material that benefited all involved.

Hestand has directed her actors, for the most part, to walk on the mild side with Black, and it's a smart decision. Debra (Lyn Montgomery) and her boyfriend, Lew (Guinn Powell), are the gracious hosts of a dinner party for Debra's ex-spouse Jonathan (Mark Hankla), a prizewinning journalist whom she hasn't seen in the last five years because he has been on assignment, incessantly globe-hopping for the likes of Life and Newsweek. The trio meet in Debra's apartment, where boxes of Jonathan's things remain to be carted off. Very quickly into the evening of pasta, wine, beer, and killer mixed drinks, we learn two things: Jonathan is an arrogant hothead who can't help but bait his rival Lew--a former Rutgers University professor turned head of social services for the state of New Jersey--peppering him with insulting little suggestions that he's achieved his status strictly because of the color of his skin. And Debra, impressionable and out for a better life with Lew, can't help but escalate the rivalry with insulting little suggestions that her new, distinguished black lover has more class, taste, and maturity than her old white one. And indeed, as far as we can tell, she's right.

Black is really about the intricacies of feeling when class brings Anglo and African-American eye to eye. Yet it's staged as a pissing match between torn and frayed exes, with a hapless black man caught in the middle. In fact, this turns out to be the most powerful truth it reveals--how, when all things actually become equal, race is the primitive arena, the savage contest where civilized men are guaranteed to become bloodthirsty. But as performed here, they seem unequal partners: the white guy is basically a knee-jerk jerk, while the too-patient black man becomes the repository for the delicious ironies that the jerk reveals with his smug racial insinuations. Jonathan dangles with deliberate condescension that loaded phrase "affirmative action" while speculating about Lew's academic and professional career, yet he also manages to nail the black man's path from a North Philadelphia childhood into Yale and a prestigious state appointment with alarming accuracy. Lew, meanwhile, angrily dismisses Jonathan's "Third World victim photos" taken in poorest Africa, yet he has probably seen less abject suffering in his own life and in his work with "family services" (he despises the word "welfare") than Jonathan has captured with his photography.

Those of us who attend live drama for such deliciously revealing ironies will probably find that in Black, as the title suggests, they begin and end with the African-American guy, who is basically a trampoline here, a thinly stretched surface on which to bounce various observations. Would that he were more reactive (he gets only two explosive moments toward the end of the play; the most honest expression of his own long-checked rage is an abruptly racist assertion that Jonathan is "one asshole cracker"). Would that the Anglo man and woman were a bit more reflective and complex. She's a slightly bimbo-ish passive-aggressive, and he's a sum-total aggressive who wants her back. The black man gets tangled up in the racial factors that stand (irreconcilably) between them.

Theatre Quorum's production of Black benefits enormously from Mark Hankla, who does the most he can with a role that's split down the middle between agitator and spurned lover; occasionally, he even manages to blur the line between the two. We know far less about Lew than about the other characters, but Guinn Powell manages a crisp portrait of what might be termed, in current political parlance, a "black conservative," and therefore helps set up the stakes for a superficially ideological fight between himself and Hankla. Lyn Montgomery is the most problematic as Debra; her soft, twangy delivery doesn't come across nearly as seriously as it should during the most heated moments, though she does register the right idolatrous note when basking in the shadow of Powell.

Oh, yeah, and did I mention someone pulls a gun in Black? There are trickier and more satisfying ways that conflict could be elevated to crisis in this dinner party of suddenly revealed resentments, but Joyce Carol Oates doesn't spend the time to pursue them. Indeed, you can't help but feel that the creator--so infamous and usually skillful as she is at chipping her way through the thin frozen ravine between life and death--exits this firearm standoff far happier than any of her creations.

Black runs through September 12. Call (972) 216-8131.

It's true that Dallas stage and screen favorite Connie Nelson has already been in New York for most of the last year, doing TV work (a supporting role in "Law and Order") and getting roles in regional theater (Cincinnati and Pittsburgh). The last metroplex stage role she had was in an early 1997 Casa Manana musical, Grossinger's, bound for Broadway but hobbled and dead way before it arrived. Still, as Nelson packs boxes in her house near the M streets to relocate for real to New York, Banter can't help but take up a few minutes of her time for a farewell.

"I first moved to New York in 1980," Nelson says with a laugh, "and I was so green. I had something like two shows under my belt and an Equity card when I got off the plane. I didn't get a lot of work, but I did go to brunch a lot. I simply wasn't ready for the environment."

She returned to Dallas in 1986, and from then till last year, has solidified her regional reputation with diverse, sincere, smooth-as-buttermilk performances at Theatre Three ("my home"), Dallas Theater Center, Casa Manana, Shakespeare Festival of Dallas, and smaller venues. Nelson had been considering another go at New York, and when she flew there for last year's premiere of Gretchen and Julia Dyer's acclaimed indie gem Late Bloomers, in which she co-starred with Dee Hennigan, her determination began to gather.

"Late Bloomers opened doors for me, but agents I talked to said they would've considered me without it because of my regional work," she says. "Right now, I'm being submitted for work on Broadway, off-Broadway, and in films, commercials, and TV work. I'll still do regional, but at this point, it's got to be a lead, or at least a really good role, to make it worth my while to travel. I'm making a commitment to New York."

It's a daring leap into a competitive industry at a time when most people in their lives start thinking about security. Or is it that time? Nelson raises the issue of age before I do, and admits her liberal tendencies have been compromised by what she confesses is "an agist, sexist industry." She at first refuses to disclose her age, then quips, "I'm on the dim, mysterious other side of my '30s." Then she admits she's quoting Clifford Odets.

"I'm a feminist, and if I wasn't in the industry I'd be shouting my age from the rooftops," Nelson admits. "But you really have to be careful. And I hate that. But sometimes, of course, it gets ridiculous. I know actresses who're close to 50 who claim they're 35. You look at them and say, 'Yeah, right.'


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