Poetry in Slow Motion

"Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal," wrote T.S. Eliot. For 1930s poet Laura Riding, that meant stealing not rhymes but husbands, notably Schuyler Jackson, a rather shiftless sometime writer for Time magazine who was married to a plain New England farm girl named Kit.

Charismatic, ego-driven Riding was the companion of poet and novelist Robert Graves, a brilliant but fragile man who suffered the nightmarish effects of shellshock from his years in the trenches of World War I. After a summer visit Riding and Graves made to the Jacksons' home on the New England coast, Kit would find herself committed to an asylum.

How she got there and why is the subject of John O'Keefe's play Glamour, now onstage at the Undermain Theatre in a production that never manages to stir quite enough passion or intrigue out of the scandalous real-life contretemps that occurred between the Jacksons and their visiting poets. Undermain performed the play in April at The Ohio Theatre in Manhattan, and the Dallas production features three of the same cast members: Bruce DuBose as Robert Graves, Tracy Arnold as Laura Riding and Suzanne Thomas as Kit Jackson. David Turner joins the company in the role of Schuyler Jackson.

O'Keefe derived his drama from accounts of the events that unfolded on the Jackson farm in the summer of 1939. Graves and Riding had been forced to leave their home in Spain when Franco came to power. They arrived in America with no money and only one suitcase between them. Riding decided to exploit her loose connection to Jackson, with whom she had corresponded after he contributed to a published review of her work. Jackson invited them to drop by his farmhouse for a short visit. The couple ended up becoming permanent residents, with Riding assuming control over every aspect of the much-younger Jacksons' day-to-day lives, eventually driving Kit to the brink of insanity.

All of that could make for a spirited, compelling stage play, but as interpreted by John O'Keefe it feels as if it's all been run through a dull-a-tron. Where's the feverish sexual tension between the characters? The final tipping in the balance of power between hosts and guests?

There's little in O'Keefe's work to suggest what really happened in the Jackson household that summer that could forever alter the relationships between two such disparate couples. He hints that both Kit and Schuyler were closet homosexuals, and Graves probably was, too, but nothing much is made of any of that. In the play, Schuyler gives Kit a black eye. Kit gives Laura a big kiss. Robert wanders around in a daze, stoic and nearly wordless except for a grim, out-of-nowhere speech about the swarms of rats that lived among the rotting corpses in the trenches.

Glamour uses only the four characters, whom we usually find seated around the dining table in the Jackson farmhouse. They make toasted bread they never eat, pour endless cups of coffee they never drink and blather about this, that and the other, with heavy emphasis on words like "honesty," "accidents" and "hearsay."

In this pretentious talkfest, characters are forced to mouth awkward expositional facts about each other by way of explaining to the audience who the hell they are. "Did you know Lawrence of Arabia?" Schuyler asks Robert. "Actually, I wrote a book about him," Robert answers. (He also wrote the fictional "autobiography" I, Claudius, the source of the classic PBS series about the troubled Roman emperor.)

O'Keefe gluts Glamour with disconnected bursts of conversation consisting of arch, incomprehensible pronouncements. "Happiness consists of being miserable in a good cause," says the Graves character, as if reading something pulled from a misfortune cookie.

Riding, who's supposed to be so almighty sexy and fascinating, instead comes across as an annoying middle-aged yenta. In scene after scene, O'Keefe keeps her yapping away, going on about her plans for world peace and how breathing household dust is equivalent to cannibalism. She declares that the Jackson house is "wired for evil." She's the house guest from hell. No wonder Kit goes mad.

Given the weakness of the play, it's hard to fault the cast too much for not living up to the task of making it watchable. But among the four, only veteran Undermain actor Bruce DuBose manages to imbue his character, Graves, with any sentient humanity. DuBose, muttering in a plausible British accent, beautifully portrays Graves' broken spirit and his sense of desperation in his relationship with the voluble Laura. When he talks about longing to be back on the battlefield, we understand why.

As Schuyler, David Turner just isn't very interesting. He's monotonal and tense. He does bear a passing resemblance to Rupert Everett, but that alone may not be enough to justify an acting career.

In the role of Schuyler's namby-pamby wife, Kit, Suzanne Thomas is quiet, bland and slightly dead behind the eyes. She utters every line inflecting up on the ends? Like she's asking a question? Even when she isn't?

Central to everything Glamour tries to be about--obsession, betrayal, ambition--is the character of Laura Riding, and unfortunately this is where Undermain's production goes completely off the rails. Actress Tracy Arnold is in noisy overdrive every minute she's onstage, playing Laura with the eye-popping, snarling meanness of a daytime soap opera villainess.

There's a fine line between egregious overacting and portraying someone bigger-than-life like Riding, who so overplayed the drama of everyday business that she jumped out a third-story window to prove a point and lived to gloat about it. Arnold errs on the wrong side, overacting to the point of coarseness. She gestures with all the subtlety of a drum major. In her big scenes, she sneers and scowls like Susan Lucci going for broke at Emmy time.

Arnold also gets tripped up by whatever accent she's using, a sort of Mid-Atlantic/British/Southern/Polish mishmash. "You will study widges," she says to Kit at one point. Only later does it become apparent that she meant "witches."

Director Katherine Owens should have pulled harder on the reins with Arnold and gotten something less hysterical and grating out of her Riding.

Design-wise, Tristan Decker's minimalist set consists of little more than some beige flats and a suggestion of clapboards. Morgan Rowe-Morris' harsh lighting casts big, distracting shadows on those beige flats.

The costuming by Happy Yancey captures the Depression period. But she keeps the Jacksons in the same outfits most of the time and gives Riding and Graves lots of changes, including several dresses and robes for her and sweaters and jackets for him. For paupers, they have an impressive wardrobe.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner

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