YOU TAKE THE HIGH GROUND, I’LL TAKE THE LOW AND I’LL BE IN
TERRE HAUTE BEFORE YOU
by Harvey Perr
published January 23, 2009
now playing Off Broadway at 59E59 Theater B
through February 15
Edmund White has come up with an intriguing idea for his first play, Terre Haute: what
if a writer like, say, Gore Vidal actually met a killer like, say, Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma Bomber, whom he had written about. And
what if McVeigh, hearing he had a sympathetic observer of his crime, actually asked to meet Vidal? At the very least, the frisson generated
by such an encounter would be intellectually, emotionally, and politically fascinating. Why then does Terre Haute, despite an interesting moment here and a provocative moment there, fail on all three
White gets Vidal down pat, the Europeanized American homosexual, world-weary and slightly arrogant and quite wise and knowing not
only about the way life works but how he himself has found his own way through it all. And, in Peter Eyre’s subtly shaded and splendidly
understated performance, which captures the essence of the man without falling into impersonation or caricature, he comes quietly to life.
We care about him; it is him we remember hours after we’ve left the theater. He is called James in the play, because this is, after all, an
invented work, closer to Equus than to In Cold Blood,
both of which it resembles, but we see him as Gore Vidal. It is also true that he is a stand-in for Edmund White, but we’ll get to that
The problem is that McVeigh, known here as Harrison, is not as fully realized. He tells his story, which, to a great extent, we
already know, but which holds our interest anyway. until we sense that there is no character there, just a spokesman for a character. He
exists primarily as the object of the writer’s personal fetishes. Nick Westrate, who plays Harrison, is a forceful young actor but he has
very little to work with, and so, instead of argument and debate and revelation, we get the story of a sophisticated older gay man getting
more and more attracted to a straight and attractive young man who is also a mass murderer.
In Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (and in the re-telling of that story in Capote), Capote’s intense connection to Perry Smith and, in return, Smith’s trust in Capote, is truer,
because they did come to know each other. But it is bred in the same sort of sexual fantasy that Terre Haute is in thrall to: the idea that gay men are drawn to straight men (“Is there anything more
lonely than a young American man in his car driving though the West on his own?” asks James; “I see boys like you wandering around New York
with their parents, farm boys on an outing to New York, taking in a musical, their blond eyebrows sun-bleached, their eyes empty – young,
dumb and full of come”). It is the unspoken conflict in Peter Shaffer’s plays. Dysart (Equus)
and Salieri (Amadeus) are not homosexuals; they are impotent professionals - a kind of metaphor
(given the fetishism being explored in all these works) for homosexuality. And what happens to these characters? They are rendered
ineffectual by the straight madmen they admire and adore.
If this romantic notion is anchored in reality, it would be interesting to see it fully explored, rather than merely exploited.
But even if it is anchored in reality, it is becoming a tiresome subject. In the end, the real failure of Terre Haute is that it is not about Gore Vidal and Timothy McVeigh, after all; it is about Edmund White
clinging to this particular fetish, and, in the end, with a prison cell separating the two men, imagining that the straight man needs the
kind of love only a gay man would offer: the tenderness of a father. It not only doesn’t ring
true, it isn’t even theatrically effective.
harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com