This is the problem with the shows on the stages at Dallas Theater Center and at the young Second Thought Theatre in Addison. All the ingredients are there for something potentially good--talented actors, experienced directors, scripts with real heft. Hailed as a bold and even shocking exploration of taboo subjects when it debuted, Peter Nichols' 1967 tragicomedy A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, which argues for euthanasia and socialism, enjoyed a successful revival three years ago in a production that transferred from London's West End to Broadway starring Eddie Izzard. The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Bertolt Brecht's huge, dark 1944 drama, unfolds on a stage crowded with characters. This play within a play supports the communist ideals of the German playwright, who was living in exile in the United States when he wrote it at the end of World War II.
Socialism. Communism. Mercy killing. Heavy issues. Lots of talking. Stuff actors really love sinking their teeth into. But what's in it for the audience? A big nasty serving of hot liver sandwich, that's what.
When they sit around choosing shows for a season, these are the titles that get the most huzzahs? Really? Find me the theatergoer who wants to pay $60 a seat to sit through a mega-depressing, two-and-a-half-hour British play about the disintegrating marriage of parents of a severely handicapped child. This is Joe Egg, directed with nary a smidgen's worth of regard for the audience's patience or entertainment dollar by DTC's artistic chief, Richard Hamburger.
It's a difficult play better suited to a smaller space than the Kalita Humphreys Theater at DTC, and it's very nearly a two-hander, requiring real workouts from its leading actors. (They carry the long first act all by themselves.) Looking back at the reviews of the 2003 New York revival, it wasn't the play, which feels dated, so much as Izzard's performance as Bri, the conflicted father of Joe, a brain-damaged child, that drew the most praise. Critics found a lot to like in the comedian's ability to make the dialogue sound fresh and spontaneous. One even accused Izzard of improvising bits for laughs, until the critic looked at the script and saw that the "ad libs" were on the page all along. Joe Egg needs a kind of antic madness in its leading man. At DTC, imported actor David Manis misses on all counts, coming across as too old for the role of Bri and too sluggish, energy-wise, for clowning.
The plot of Joe Egg is high-art soap opera with flashes of vaudeville. Bri and Sheila (Wendy Rich Stetson) love each other and their disabled 10-year-old daughter Joe (the wonderful Clara Peretz) intensely. He's an underpaid Bristol, England, schoolteacher who paints whimsical scenes of the Old West as a hobby. She's a devoted stay-home mom who acts in community theater productions. In their living room, the girl sits between them in a wheelchair, blank and unresponsive as the result of birth defects. The only time she moves is when she twists into horrific seizures.
Bri is the glass-half-empty guy who knows Joe's situation is bleak and that they'll be caring for her till the end of their days. "Every cloud has a jet-black lining," he moans. Sheila, ever cheerful, prays for the miracle that will awaken "our Sleeping Beauty." They've thought of having more children, but there are fertility issues. The stress of caring for Joe has begun to erode their relationship (Bri's also the jealous type, even of Sheila's tending to houseplants and parakeets). Eventually Bri will reveal his plan to put an end to Joe's suffering, and therefore save the marriage, with an overdose of anti-seizure medication.
To ease tension and keep them amused and sane, Bri and Sheila carry on long stretches of jocular badinage, repeating routines they've made up about their sad little family. They speak directly to the audience, each getting a turn in the spotlight. These scenes should be achingly funny, with a side of heartbreak, the way Albee's classic Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? dares to make light of its leading couple's sickening despair.
Doesn't happen in this Joe Egg. The performances are too insignificant and the setting at DTC too grand to connect play, actors and audience successfully or meaningfully. As Sheila, pretty, frizzy-haired Stetson, also hired in from out of town, is as perky as a shampoo ad. And in her tight purple sweater, pencil skirt and sharp boots, she's too put-together to convince us she's a financially strapped, harried mom who wipes drool (and worse) off her sick child every few minutes. The actress also looks young enough to play Manis' daughter, not his wife.
And then there's that house they live in. Wow. Scenic designer Michael Yeargan has built a palatial, extravagantly furnished two-story home for the play's poor schoolteacher. This wouldn't matter much except in the scene when Joe nearly dies and someone has to run down the block to use a phone because Bri and Sheila can't afford one. How'd they manage that fancy sofa and chair?
The tempo picks up briefly in Act 2 when new characters enter. Dallas actors Jessica D. Turner and James Crawford effectively embody the boorish, Socialist-minded middle-class couple who bring Sheila home from a play rehearsal. They're embarrassed at the sight of poor Joe but get swept into an emergency they'd rather not be part of. Later still, Sandra Shipley injects some much-needed pizzazz as Bri's pushy mother, who keeps reminding them how pretty Joe would be "if she were up running around."
It's a long slog till the final curtain. Surely Bri couldn't possibly spout another monologue. But he does as the playwright (who based the play on personal experience with a disabled child) tacks on another 10 minutes. And then another 20. The play slows to a grinding stillness and then to a final thud of an ending that leaves the viewer wondering what went so wrong--Play? Acting? Directing?--to keep this Joe Egg from being all that it was cracked up to be.
Think Joe Egg feels interminable? The first act of Second Thought Theatre's production of Caucasian Chalk Circle crosses time zones.
In the small black-box space in the same Addison theater complex that currently houses WaterTower Theatre's gigundo production of Urinetown, the Musical, Second Thought stages Brecht's drama, which is based either on the biblical story of Solomon or a Chinese folk parable, depending on which source you check. (And neither sounds like much fun, does it?)
In a time of unrest in the country of Grusinia, a baby finds its way into the arms of a peasant named Grusha (played, for no good reason, by four different and unmemorable actresses). As the woman attempts to get the child to safety, she must dodge soldiers, other peasants and falling bridges. When the governor's wife claims the baby is hers, a trial takes place to determine parental rights.
That's the stripped-down explanation of a play so confusing that I stopped trying to figure it out. And worse than Brecht's stilted and cryptic dialogue about Persian wars and how many piasters it takes for some raggedy-ass peasant to buy a few sips of milk is director Stan Denman having his 17-member cast, all dressed in dull, ripped-up muslins, scream lines in unison at the tops of their lungs. They also sing a lot (original, very bad music by Allen Robertson). Plugging my ears barely dampened the din.
When intermish finally rolled around, I checked my watch to see if it was time for breakfast. Actually it was only 9:30 p.m., and the crowd next door was just returning to their seats for Urinetown. I slipped in with them and happily second-acted that show just to remind myself what good theater looks and sounds like. For all I know, Chalk Circle is still going around and around.