Theater » Theater Feature


A.R. Gurney still Caucasian, Forum unravels mystery, the U of M gets artsy.


A.R. Gurney (Love Letters) is the dramatic voice of the tragically white. With lean prose tossed off as effortlessly as Bing Crosby's celebrated scat, he speaks both for and to an imagined country-club set for whom a delayed tee-time might generate just enough conflict to fuel a rather laid-back Greek tragedy. Over the years, he has gently teased his well-heeled peer group, but Gurney's light satire can seldom overcome the accompanying "conservatives are people, too" sentiments that permeate his work. In The Official Preppy Handbook, author Lisa Birnbach described ennui as a sort of affected boredom that makes every activity a person performs seem excruciatingly casual. It was a quality she highly recommended to would-be preps and a quality which Gurney's characters exhibit in abundance. It is the very same characteristic that makes this white-bread historian's latest offering, Far East, a bit of a snoozer. The characters come off as emotionally disengaged tourists gliding effortlessly through life. Their problems don't bother them very much, so why should we care? Fortunately, Theatre Memphis' production has a top-drawer cast, elegant direction by Jerry Chipman, and an absolutely breathtaking set by Michael Walker to recommend it. Even with all this exquisite baggage it comes off as the unfunny fulfillment of every WASP joke ever written.

Q: What's an American WASP's idea of open-mindedness?

A: Dating a Canadian.

Far East, which is set during a lull in the Korean War, begins when junior officer "Sparky" Watts (John Moore) reports for duty. He is an upbeat go-getter who, having been sheltered all his life by a wealthy family, is determined to find "meaningful experiences" overseas. While he pays lip-service to the virtues of being a good soldier, he is given to distraction and intent on preserving a luxurious, carefree lifestyle. He regularly requests leaves, plays lots of tennis, and has his very own convertible shipped over from America. Ironically, his rebellious playboy attitude is tempered by a WASPy urge to couple, and within days of his arrival he settles into a monogamous, loving relationship with a Japanese waitress whom the audience is never really allowed to meet. All of the play's conflict is rooted around this one underwhelming transgression.

Enter Julia Anderson (Irene Crist Flanagan), the bored "Laura Bush meets Mrs. Robinson" wife of Sparky's C.O. She is a "Smith girl" of the highest breeding. She knows young Sparky's family and suspects that they would be devastated if they found out about his amorous adventures with a yellow-skinned heathen. So, of course, she devastates them. Later we discover (gasp!) that her actions are not motivated by breeding but rather a longing to breed with poor Sparky.

Moore, in his most animated role to date, makes Sparky a really likable guy. In fact, he's so very nice and even-keeled that his excessive yet disarmingly understated affability seems more like some dangerous pathological disorder. The love he professes for his Japanese sweetheart is discussed with roughly the same ardor as his tennis game or his longing to climb Mt. Fuji. With a little more bravado and a little less spit and polish, Moore could have shown us what a greedy, manipulative, and immature opportunist Sparky really is -- especially when he turns in his friend for being a homosexual who has swapped top-secret information to the enemy to avoid being outed. It's a passionless career move and not at all an act of patriotism. As it stands, Moore comes off as a tepid, vaguely tragic romantic lead.

Flanagan's patrician bearing and preening, motherly concern for Sparky never mask her character's motives. She drips with sexual innuendo from their first awkward encounter. Her best moments, however, come near the end of the play when Sparky tells her that the simmering attraction she feels is mutual. Like a good little WASP, she takes this affirmation as a sign that this affair was never meant to be, leaving the entire audience with a painful case of theatrical blue balls.

Q: How many WASPs does it take to change a light bulb?

A: Three. Two to mix the martinis and one to call the electrician.

Barclay Roberts (in the role of Captain James Anderson) is virtually incapable of giving a bad performance. He's always going to play essentially the same character, but not to worry: He's very good at it. Every choice he makes is simple and every word rings true. And while this is no less the case in Far East, Roberts' intrinsic warmth and gentleness ultimately undermine his performance and dull his self-absorbed character's edge. On one hand, the career officer is infuriated by Sparky's lack of seriousness and patriotism. On the other, he sees the young officer's roguishness as a reflection of himself in younger, wilder days. Roberts glosses over this dilemma with an adorably gruff "what the hell, I like ya, kid" attitude. He's so likable in fact that we forget that he virtually ignores his wife. When she eventually leaves him, it seems like an unfair and intentionally hurtful decision on her behalf rather than the result of their mutual unhappiness.

Captain Anderson sees the military as a sort of boy's club where rank has its privileges. He's more concerned with getting stationed on an aircraft carrier, improving his golf swing, and getting a little bit of indigenous tail from time to time than he is with salvaging his marriage. But in Roberts' super-friendly hands, these less-than-sterling qualities become attractive signifiers of the rugged individualist. You just can't find fault in a man you'd desperately like to sit down and have a drink with.

Q: Why did the WASP cross the street?

A: To get to the middle of the road.

Director Jerry Chipman deserves big props for dishing out the eye candy. The set, a single wooden tower set against a pale blue scrim and a burning orange sun, begs for crisp, uncluttered blocking. That is exactly what Chipman delivers. The entire experience of Far East is so enjoyable on a sheerly visual level it almost makes up for the lackluster script and the less-than-impassioned performances.

Far East at Theatre Memphis through March 25th.

Who Am I?

With the opening of Bizet's Locket, Playwright's Forum, a company dedicated solely to the development of original scripts, has launched its finest effort this season. The story follows Annette, a young woman of the '60s who has returned to France to track down her birth parents. She enlists the aid of Pierre, a dubious war-hero-turned-cop who helped her adoptive parents smuggle her out of Europe during WWII and now seems to go out of his way to throw Annette off the scent.

The subtle, talky script is perhaps a bit too pat. Characters draw conclusions too quickly, and the mystery is not terribly compelling. Still, it is compelling enough, and the question of whether or not Pierre is actually a murderous, in-the-closet Nazi provides plenty of intrigue.

An all-star cast, featuring the talents of Tony Isbell, Michele C. Summers, and Dorothy Blackwood, gives the script the kind of intelligent workout that a new work not only deserves but requires. Leigh Ann Evans' direction is, for the most part, on the money. Long, tedious, and often unnecessary set-changes, which make Bizet's Locket move just a little slower than an elderly slug on Quaaludes, should be sped up or eliminated. Either one would be a radical improvement.

Bizet's Locket at TheatreWorks through March 10th.

Art Attack

The U of M's entire studio theater space has been converted into a warm, cozy art gallery. Light-pedestals scattered throughout the audience hold objects both mundane and fascinating. Similar pedestals onstage display trophies, kettles, and books. Everything about the environment is inviting and comfortable, until the lights dim, that is, and we meet the characters in Donald Margulies' Sight Unseen.

Jonathan Waxman is a wildly successful Jewish artist who constantly poor-mouths his achievements and bad-mouths an art world that embraced him and made him a star. He is an insufferable egomaniac who believes in his own myth, if for no other reason because he made it himself -- with the help of a publicist, of course. His "bad boy" art, which has undertones of racism, blends religious symbology with scenes of graphic sex and (quite possibly) violence. Like the infamous Piss Christ of yesteryear, it's the kind of knee-jerk art that gets people's attention and causes wealthy buyers, desperate to stay ahead of the hip-curve, to line up with their checkbooks. Of course Waxman also takes the lazy and infuriating modernist stance that absolves the artist of any faults he might have and makes viewers almost entirely responsible for what they see in a painting. He is a manipulative jackass and a poseur who cleaves to his heritage only when it suits him politically. He is the artist-turned-ugly-American who has come to the English countryside to claim the one thing his millions of U.S. dollars can't buy: the forgiveness of Patricia, a college sweetheart he left behind. Then again, maybe he just wants to get himself a little "old-time-sakes." Hard to say.

Though she still obviously carries a torch for her famous ex, Patricia, now a world-wise archaeologist living with her caustic Brit husband in the north of England, isn't interested in forgiveness. Her husband, Nick, who feels he's always lived in Waxman's shadow, is likewise determined to make the artist as uncomfortable as possible over the course of his visit. What ensues is a fiercely intelligent, surprisingly satisfying two-hour debate about art, history, heritage, family, and relationships. In the end, the work is too academic and desperately in need of a few laughs or at least a horrified gasp or two. It's all heady wind-up with no pitch. Still, it's an evening well spent.

As Waxman, Nate Eppler is nearly as aloof and creepy as Christian Bale in American Psycho. It's impossible to tell whether or not he actually believes anything he says. Bill Lewis is equally convincing as Nick, a good-hearted man consumed by jealousy, resentment, and hatred. Kelly Morton's performance as the jilted girlfriend become crumbling mountain of self-sufficency is inspired. She radiates strength, smarts, and self-control as she shifts easily back and forth in time from free-spirited, sexually liberated teen to conservative, jaded, and calculating adult.

Sight Unseen at the University of Memphis through March 10th.

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