Sins of the playwright

I don't know about you, but if any Old Testament story is primed to make me an atheist, it's the saga of Abraham, the man who's happy to stab and incinerate his son because God asked him to as a test of faith. You can talk about historical context and how the birth and crucifixion of Christ later heralded a new era of celestial mercy in the New Testament, but the oft-debated Abraham-Isaac tale sells a vision of faith that puts human life a distant second to unthinking obedience to a cruel, capricious God. If this is the true order of the universe, maybe hell isn't so bad after all. To paraphrase Mark Twain, at least the conversation down there would be interesting.

The sheer outrageousness (by Western liberal, post-Enlightenment standards) of the 22nd chapter in Genesis makes it a nutrient-rich field for plowing by an opportunistic playwright. Men (and to a far lesser extent, women) have believed for millennia that God is worth killing and dying for. The story of Abraham and Isaac cuts right to the heart of this troubling issue by asking, Should faith be used to enrich life, or make it less valuable by placing all the emphasis on the big reward waiting for you at the top of that golden escalator? Either God can be stirred in our empathetic treatment of one another in the right here and now (that old "God is love" bumper sticker), or the faithful are sitting around waiting, flipping through magazines, and not taking much notice of one another in this great big green room called planet earth. In the latter context, the murder of a son by his father, if done in the name of God, can be justified.

Recent SMU grad and Minneapolis resident David Schulner, a young Jewish playwright, apparently has a few problems stomaching the story of Abraham and Isaac too. As part of its First Annual New Works Festival, Kitchen Dog Theater presents a world-premiere production of a play that has had input from some pretty notable sources--Tony Kushner, Jon Robin Baitz, Craig Lucas, Liz Swados, and the Dog's artistic director Dan Day. Schulner, currently an artistic associate with the Hidden Theater in Minneapolis, is a bit of a wunderkind in contemporary American drama, having had scripts developed at Lincoln Center, the Humana Festival in Louisville, and the Sundance Theater Lab. Clearly, a lot of people think this kid (at 23!) is destined for big things.

Yet he makes a rather anemic case for that assessment with Isaac, which offers all sorts of allusions to the pressure of being one of the chosen people and the seemingly endless journey (on foot, no less) that is faith. We sit there wondering precisely how these frequently intriguing loose ends will be tied together, and the culmination is a family therapy session between an apologetic Abraham and an empowered, forgiving Isaac. Instead of complexity, we get dysfunction. Denied profundity, the audience is served a cleansing from that pesky co-dependency that is humanity's relationship with God. It's a shockingly facile treatment of a philosophical-theological dilemma. Schulner occasionally raises goosebumps with his learned insights, only to flatten them with trendy choreography that's composed of precisely one variation on 12-steps.

Director Dan Day has elicited brisk, alert performances from Isaac (Jesse Erbel), Abraham (Bill Lengfelder), and wife and mother Sarah (Erin McGrann). He's also brought in the ominous musical talents of D'Drum and Beledi Ensemble member Jamal Mohamed, who's on hand to help underscore the confrontations and tender confabs with flute, hand drum, and gong. Yet I think Day did make a mistake by overlooking one simple, vulgar, but compelling house-management truth--a 90-minute play about the contradictions of faith needs an intermission. Granted, 90 minutes is shorter than your average two-act evening in the theater, but during the last 20 minutes or so, the sound of butts shifting in the creaky wooden risers competed with the high drama onstage. This stuff ain't exactly Alan Ayckbourn; it's too intense (at least until the lame finale) to deny time for ticketbuyers to process it with a cigarette or a plastic cup of red wine in the lobby. Alfred Hitchcock once said the average film length should not exceed the endurance of the human bladder; any poor schmuck unlucky enough to down a couple of beers before curtain was treated to a contest for attention between his bursting bladder and the important issues onstage.

"How many years does it take to see God?" one character wonders aloud as Abraham and Isaac, separated by almost the entire expanse of the stage, march soldier-like in unison on a seemingly endless trek through the desert toward Mount Moriah, where God has asked Abraham to make Isaac into a burnt offering. Sarah stands, literally and figuratively, between and behind them, as clueless as Isaac is that her boy, and not a ram, will be sliced and set upon a wooden pyre to be sacrificed. A demonic, hallucinatory figure lets Sarah know what her husband's real goal is, and she desperately pursues them to prevent the deed.  

What we have in Isaac are three competing versions of faith, of how to confront the unknowable, and they line up just accurately enough with many of our collective experiences with family to reflect a certain version of reality. Cold, steely patriarch Abraham is guided by principle (or rather, his unwavering devotion to it); emotional matriarch Sarah attempts to fly in for the rescue on wings knitted with apron strings, a lioness who doesn't give a damn about what God wants when it means protecting her cub; and restless, inattentive, irreverent Isaac is a smart kid facing manhood and adult responsibility armed with a healthy skepticism of both. Jesse Erbel as Isaac has the most fully developed role, and he acquits himself nicely, especially in providing the play's much-needed moments of comedy. The contemporary teenage cant into which he breaks may be distracting when other, lesser actors attempt it, but Erbel keeps the transition between eras smooth as milk chocolate. Bill Lengfelder and Erin McGrann as the parents have Gloomy Gloria roles--one marches stoicly, the other pursues with desperate maternal longing--but they do hit all their cues with convincing emotion.

But nobody in this play can escape that final, fraudulent, faux reconciliation between Isaac and Abraham. And since you've traveled this long, intermissionless journey with the pair, only to see them hug, kiss, and make that I'm-going-to-sacrifice-you-for-my-God stuff all better, you can't help but wonder whether this script has less to do with the vagaries of faith and more to do with playwright David Schulner trying to resolve some personal family conflicts.

Artists usually roll their eyes when you dare to ask autobiographical questions, insisting that such meddling trivializes the work. But great art is often born of traumatic, unresolved incidents from writers' pasts; they become artists by developing the discipline to universalize it, brushing away their own tracks as they go along. Isaac is most definitely not great art, although Schulner seems capable of eventually producing it. If he can get over what seems to be a clumsy desperation to create a happy family in this script, he'd come a lot closer to it right now. As is, he seems to be grinding an ax until it's blunt. Sparks are produced during this process, but when he finally wields the instrument, the damn thing won't cut.

Isaac runs through June 13. Call (214) 953-1055.

Because of conflicts between playwright Lanie Robertson and the folks who own the rights to Billie Holiday's catalog, Soul Rep Theater Company was forced to cancel their production of Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, a one-woman show about the drug-ravaged, abusive lover-riddled last days of jazz great Holiday. As a result, Dallas was denied the theatrical invocation of one great American singer, but got a helluva consolation prize--four great American singers, all channeled by vocalist-arranger-international performer Roz White in a one-woman show she wrote called Legacy: From Renaissance to Revolution.

The women White portrays are Holiday, Bessie Smith, Sarah Vaughan, and Pearl Bailey. She sings from their respective canons too, in a museum format of these performers from the '20s through the '60s--as it happens, also a seminal period for African-American activism. White went to Howard University with Soul Rep artistic director Guinea Lada Bennett and answered the call to do a world premiere of this show, which will move on to the Brooklyn Moon Cafe in June and then several European cities in the fall.

"These four women are born under the same Zodiac sign as I was: Aries," says White. "I've been fascinated with black women in the music industry since I was 5, particularly Aretha Franklin and Sarah Vaughan. Later on I'd read books. I became fascinated with the history of their lives, not necessarily their careers. At first it was scary, because they had a lot of tragedy, and so many things were similar between us Aries women. But I embraced it; I thought, 'I don't have to make those mistakes.' Legacy is wonderful because I'm one of those singers who don't like to be categorized; I have some blues and jazz and soul in me. That's hard in the music business, because they want you have to be categorized so they can market you. This is a way to get all my personalities out."

Roz White is on the cusp of breaking out, both as a recording artist (she's experienced a European chart hit with her remake of Dee Dee Bridgewater's "Bad For Me") and a vocal arranger (she's worked with Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and Phylis Hyman). She's consciously paying tribute with Legacy, but also trying to write a little theatrical history about the many sides to these women, especially the legendary Bessie Smith. White admits she grew interested in Smith later in her own life, but recognizes her as one of the most influential American singers of the 20th century.  

"Bessie was amazing," White exults. "She was in the music business at a time when there was no chance for black artists to make a lot of money, and yet she managed to become quite wealthy from her recordings and live performances. It was unheard of, the way she negotiated her career. And at the same time, she flouted a lot of segregation laws. She had a terrible end, but we don't delve too much into the tragic or violent parts of these women's pasts. That's been overdone. There's a lot of stories here, but we tried to sift through them and break them down to the bare facts."

Legacy: From Renaissance to Revolution runs through May 30. Call (214) 521-5070.

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