A co-worker who regularly attends the theater fairly recoiled when he learned that Dallas Theater Center had programmed Margaret Edson's Wit into the final slot of the season. He had seen the New York production, and while he could note some of its admirable qualities from a safe distance, he confessed that it was one of the most depressing and unpleasant evenings he had ever paid to attend. He couldn't find much of an object lesson in watching a cold, demanding and sarcastic professor of 17th-century English poetry, bedridden and dying of ovarian cancer, acknowledge how terribly lonely she's always been. Even Wit's celebrated virtue--the script contains much of what gives the play its title, spoken by the deteriorating woman as a kind of final stand against mortality--was cold comfort. The moral of the show for him? Something like, "Life is hard. Drink more whiskey."
One gauge of the sophistication of a piece of theater is how easily artists can screw it up. Wit, written by an Atlanta kindergarten teacher who won a Pulitzer Prize and now claims she may never pen another play, is a show that demands directors and actors summon all kind of tangled emotions--laughter through tears; the pleasure of human connection while gripped with terror; and a rational and even amused comprehension of death, that grandest of incomprehensibles. This means that, in style and content, you can land all over the map of this play's internal journey, that of a woman who finally understands that her lifelong philosophy--namely, she doesn't need others because "being smart is enough"--has been fallacious.
Dr. Vivian Bearing (played at DTC by Brenda Thomas) reflects how both the childhood books given her by her father (Mark Walz) and the admiration she held for Dr. Ashford (Mary Fogarty), a philosophy professor who inspired her interest in pondering linguistic mysteries, inadvertently gave her the materials with which she isolated herself from any kind of intimacy. When hospitalized, she tentatively begins to reach out to doctors, nurses and former students. Is this a victory or a tragedy? Is Bearing redeemed by her tardy discovery or still suffering from her lifetime of self-imposed aloneness? It depends on which version you see.
Unfortunately, under the direction of DTC artistic associate K. Elizabeth Stevens, Wit is delivered mostly as a mordant stand-up act, with levels of pathos unexplored or unconvincing. The comic performer in the spotlight here is largely responsible for this. The performance of Thomas as Bearing is so problematic on so many levels, you can peel and peel away at it like an onion and still discover an empty center. I don't know how old Thomas is, but she appears younger than the ideal menopausal age from which Bearing would do so much reflection. (I had the same trouble with Emma Thompson in Mike Nichols' recent HBO adaptation of Edson's play.) Couple this with the faux patrician airs Thomas delivered on the DTC stage in a quasi-English accent, and the aura of authority--much less intimidating authority--is shattered. Given the overall sense that Thomas is working too hard to connect with this character, I couldn't help but feel she was giving an impersonation, not a performance. And--courting criticism though I am by saying this--it seemed to be an impersonation of a 50-year-old Anglo college professor. The fact that Thomas is African-American wouldn't be an issue if she were a performer who used her own resources to create an imperious presence. (I can imagine Alfre Woodard or Ruby Dee triumphing as this hard-ass whose brains are too big for her own good.) But at the Dallas Theater Center, Bearing remains an idea, an outline, with an actor struggling vainly inside to find the truth of her experiences. She goes no deeper than the surface cliché accoutrements of a cultured ice queen.
This Wit's problem isn't one of color-blind casting; it's that director Stevens has simply miscast her lead. I also suspect that, on some level, Thomas knows this, which might explain why her version of Bearing is entirely too eager to charm audience members in her direct addresses to them. That's the last thing this woman full of stern glances and over-intellectualized obsession with John Donne's metaphysical verse has wanted to do in her life. Bearing should channel the wit that she's so fond of locating in Donne into one-liners with a scalpel's edge and a morgue worker's grimness. There are times when Thomas as Bearing, bald under a baseball cap and in a hospital gown, wheeling an IV drip from one side of the stage to the other, is almost vivacious. And, to her credit, she did generate quite a lot of laughter on opening night. But her final break, her collision with loneliness at the edge of death and the stony reality of her own stubborn denials, is completely hollow in the face of such frivolity.
The problem with Nichols' movie version of Wit is that the humor of Edson's dialogue was extinguished by the raw despair of the poetry professor's plight; on the Kalita Humphreys stage, the opposite mistake has happened. This woman's terrifying confrontation with mortality has been diminished to some snappy asides about how death really sucks, doesn't it?
Shortly after Pat Buchanan gave his notorious "culture war" speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention, a joke began to circulate that was unusually pointed and, well, flat-out funny to have come from a liberal perspective. It goes something like this: "It's a little-known fact, but Pat Buchanan had a relative who died in the Holocaust."
"Yeah, he slipped and fell off the guard tower."
Holocaust jokes are, as you might imagine, an extremely sub-sub-genre of American humor, but from Charlie Chaplin to Daffy Duck to Adam Sandler, Nazis have been kicked around for comic purposes as long as we never get a glimpse of what they actually accomplished. No reason that Pocket Sandwich Theatre shouldn't reserve a few heated kernels for the SS in its audience-participation, "popcorn-throwing" spoofs. It's a clever conceit that Dieter Schmidt (Greg Pugh) and Hilde Gruter (Allyn Carrell), the officers who have seized the Paris Opera House in 1943, should share the stage with the traditional, apolitical villain The Phantom in David Meyer's Return of the Phantom of the Opera, and that this ghastly, merciless masked loner would be cheered on for Hannibal Lecter-style carnage to drive the Nazis out. We have little doubt who'll prevail--beer and nachos at the Pocket don't mix well with a downer ending. But, the perfect expression of the show's overall devilishness comes at the end, when a freed French captive named Helen Giry (Dona Safran) sighs with a relieved, dreamy smile: "Now ze Phantom can retarn to dropping shandaleers on unzezpecting operagoerz."
Yep, Return of the Phantom of the Opera is the kind of show you want to quote phonetically, be it in the fevered French or nasty, leering German accents that the cast brandishes with glee. From the beginning, when a showgirl in a stars-and-stripes costume named Trixie Trawlins (Jennifer Hutchison) leads us in a gratingly cheerful singalong with "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me)" and "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" and a radio transmission crackles with news of the German invasion of France, director Daniel Morrow keeps his large cast zipping across the tiny stage to the advantage of the script's ham-handed historical broadsides. It's well-nigh impossible to explain why the Pocket Sandwich sometimes succeeds and sometimes doesn't, except for individual tastes in guilty-pleasure humor. I've never been a big sci-fi fan, so watching the aquatic Utopian send-up of 20,000 Babes Beneath the Sea didn't really connect with me. On the other hand, I once laughed myself wet watching Benny Hill play a horny, sniveling SS officer, so this one brought back pleasant memories.
I also happen to be a big fan of onscreen and onstage violence (when it's done well), especially when deployed for comic ends. And so the severed heads and disemboweled corpses of Return of the Phantom of the Opera were soothing haunted-house-in-April touches that made me watch to see what would happen next. My favorite gag of the evening came, unfortunately, rather early on, leaving lingering disappointment that it was never topped. Officer Hilde Gruter yanks the Paris Opera House's reigning diva Marie de Chagney (Angela Groh) out of the role of Brunhilde in Wagner's Die Walkure and installs Hilde's sister Gretchen, played by a big hairy guy in yellow braids and horned helmet named Larry Colvin. Colvin generously gives himself over to the role of walking sight gag and rewarded me with the evening's best moment, when Gretchen scrambles backstage in midperformance, draped with the top half of a gutted Nazi officer whom The Phantom has dropped from the fly space. I don't really know if that's funny, but damn if I didn't laugh.