Birds of a Feather

A few years back, when Edward Albee spoke at the Dallas Museum of Art, he set aside a very special few minutes to heap vitriol on the profession of theater criticism and those wannabe artists who flail away with ink-stained claws at the accomplishments of others. His sentiments were hardly novel for a playwright-director (and I've read colleagues whose barely contained, bilious envy justified Albee's bitterness, albeit not toward the whole pack of us). My standard line of defense is--that unlike film and TV, theater flares up and out, never to be viewed again with that special combination of actors, directors, designers and "the moment" where their efforts unite to stun audiences. The columns and reviews some stage artists despise are often the only existing record of the artistic glory (and folly) they've achieved. For good and ill, we're their historians, the only witnesses who can tell one version of the tale in a public forum that will be read by the many, many others who didn't catch that burst of dying light. That vast archive known as the Internet now virtually assures that differing impressions of shows, seasons, companies and entire regions can be recorded for lovers and scholars alike.

It's a relationship that, by design, will swing between mutual love and hate, but the internationally produced young Irish playwright Conor McPherson has delivered a slap that stings with an odd sweetness in St. Nicholas, currently staged as a somberly thrilling co-production between Undermain Theatre and Theatre Quorum. The nameless protagonist in his one-man show is a hard-drinking Irish theater scribe who hates everything--himself, his job, the plays he covers, his wife--except his daughter and a dancer of questionable talents named Helen whom he clumsily pursues. That McPherson takes critics seriously enough to transform one into a wretched figure who (maybe) achieves something like redemption strikes me as a backhanded compliment. (Not so for others in the biz; on opening night, the steely silence of disapproval wafted from one local critic's direction.) Under the direction of Theatre Quorum co-founder Carl Savering, Undermain stalwart Bruce DuBose assumes the role with an exquisite, soft-voiced mix of self-effacement, sad-eyed melancholy and vulpine humor that guarantees the humanity, not the hatred, is emphasized here.

As has been reported, DuBose and his wife, Undermain co-founder Katherine Owens, have established a New York presence via work with the Ohio Theatre. They've pledged to continue producing plays in both cities, although many people have been wondering what's up with their quixotic "schedule" of late-announced shows. Among the curious, apparently, are some longtime Undermain Theatre collaborators, whose standing with Owens and DuBose remains somewhat disputed. (A Dallas actor-director who was with the company from its start 16 years ago recently listed in a program bio for another show that her membership ended in 2000; the program for St. Nicholas includes her among the Undermain's current members.) I'm happy to report, though, that other ensemble members return in a design function for St. Nicholas. Kateri Cale created its marvelously gloomy, ornate-rugged drawing room of candles and claret glasses, and Happy Yancey chipped in with DuBose's silk-seedy evening robe. Together with light-meister Tristan Decker, they forge an environment of long shadows and dusty surfaces that suggests Noel Coward has sublet a room in Shirley Jackson's Hill House.

Director Carl Savering is himself no neophyte when it comes to the Undermain. He trod the concrete floor of its basement space on several occasions in the early '90s, twice under the direction of DuBose. They've switched stage sides now, and Savering has nudged DuBose to play the critic as more sympathetic, wounded rather than wounding, than McPherson's lengthy, circuitous monologue suggests. Otherwise, we couldn't spend two acts being regaled with so many resentments and disappointments, and we wouldn't be so eager to accompany DuBose into his dubious tales of debauchery with a house full of London vampires, who flatter his warped literary ego in exchange for his services as a pimp--he procures virgin blood for their feasts. The St. Nicholas script contains allusions to comical undead arcana that DuBose takes masterful advantage of. He recounts spilling a jar of rice to escape, because Anglo bloodsuckers by nature must stop to count every grain before they can continue. DuBose's rolling eyes assess vampire lore, and the audience howled.

Undermain's creepy, lovely current collaboration with Theatre Quorum--itself recently experiencing an unpredictable "season" full of cancellations and replacements--does suggest Owens and DuBose are keeping a Dallas lookout from their New York digs for small, younger companies of proven ability, area troupes that will benefit from their experience as career soldiers in the very difficult world of nontraditional theater. I hope the divided attentions of the Undermain heads will develop into a two-way street between an unsung theater town and an overhyped stage Mecca.