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The Wake by Lisa Kron – Los Angeles Theater Review

 

SITTING THROUGH THE LAST DECADE ALL OVER AGAIN

 

picture - The WakeTheater Review

by Harvey Perr 

published April 4, 2010 

 

The Wake

now playing in Los Angeles at the Kirk Douglas Theatre

through April 18

plays May 14 – June 27 in Berkeley at the Berkeley Rep

plays October 19 – November 21 in New York at the Public Theatre as In The Wake 

 

Lisa Kron’s The Wake is nothing if not ambitious, but if ambition could bring down Caesar, imagine how it could trip up a mere playwright. The charms of her earlier play, Well, were inspired and authentic; in it, Ms. Kron looked at such complex matters as food, racism and mother-daughter relationships with wit and style and, above all, a breezy kind of casualness, making easy what could have been unwieldy. Easy? As easy as whipping up a soufflé. Ask any cook how easy that is.

 

So what has Kron followed that up with? A play that tries to take the whole last decade, what we have come to know as the Bush years, and relive it, in details that liberal audiences will fondly concede echoes their own experience.  We have all been there, in front of our television sets, yelling back at that box as if it were an animate object. But she has something much more complex in mind. How did those years change the life of her heroine, Ellen, and, by extension, all of our lives? This is strong and meaty stuff, to be sure, but, by the time the evening finally comes to an end, we find ourselves stuffed with variations on all the questions and with no more answers than the decade itself produced. And, worst of all, the play becomes overwrought with Ellen’s self-indulgence, so that we not only don’t care about how our own lives have been altered by those years but, worse still, we cease to care about Ellen’s personal drama.

 

picture - The WakeIt would be nice to think that Kron, through pruning and shaping, will eventually bring her play to where it should be, but, at the moment, so little is truly dramatized. Everyone talks about what has been going on, but we never see what they are talking about. It’s as if everything essential happens offstage. And it keeps traveling on a trackless road for almost three hours of non-stop talking. The talk, if you can get through it, is often vibrant with brilliance and compassion, but it is buried in a Sargasso sea of confusion. Nor does it help that most of the characters are thinly drawn, familiar as stereotypes rather than as living human beings. And the acting, with one notable exception (I will get to her), from the vantage point of where this reviewer was seated, blurred together, absent of nuance and subtlety, as if their director, the usually reliable Leigh Silverman, was positioning them for running roles in a situation comedy.

 

It’s not that Ellen’s situation is without interest. She is in a relationship with the affable and comfortable Danny, who clearly loves her and gives her license to pursue her life without reservations. Their closest friends are a lesbian couple, one of whom is Danny’s sister, and Ellen herself surrenders to a lesbian relationship that she ultimately cannot commit to. There is a lot of heavy breathing in their love making and yet, as love scenes, they are almost prudishly discreet. And one can’t help but ask how Amy (the woman Ellen falls in love with) knows so much about the people in Ellen’s life since she never meets them. Does she know as much as she does just by hearing what Ellen tells her? Well, it is possible that Ellen talks Amy to distraction in much the same way that she punishes the audience with language.

 

There are two other characters thrown into Kron’s overheated cauldron, a bitter and battle-scarred social worker named Judy and Judy’s mixed-race niece who is not so much a real character as she is a spokesperson, all too briefly, for some of the more cogent arguments Kron comes up with, in her need to give every single side of a debate its own voice.  Miriam F. Glover is charming in this role.  And Emily Donahoe brings as much sensitivity to the part of Amy as the writing permits her to. Almost everyone else is left floundering in search of the play.

 

picture - The WakeThe one exception, as noted above, is Deirdre O’Connell, a great actress who deserves a play of her own, who brings a full-blown character on stage the minute she enters; she  says everything that needs to be said with body language, with the way she lights a cigarette, her eyes glazed over with bitterness, the smoky growl that seems to come from deep within her. When she finally lets loose with a powerfully written and articulated monologue about how brutally compromised the American political system is and always has been, it should be the crowning moment of the play. But, finally, The Wake is too caught up in Ellen’s bourgeois attitudes to fully absorb the range of complex ideas Kron herself has written in Judy’s extraordinary diatribe.

 

Heidi Shreck’s Ellen is a terrifically conflicted woman and, when it is more fully explored by Kron, Shreck may finally come through with a blistering and telling characterization, one that, at this stage, however, she strains to make coherent and interesting.

 

picture - the WakeThe ubiquitous David Korins, one of the most vastly talented set designers of his generation, has found a way to make cinematically fluid the different places in which the play takes place, and he allows Alexander V. Nichols's elegant projections to cover the stage with sharp images of the Bush years that have burned into our collective memory; he has also created the best fire escape I’ve ever seen on any stage. But Ellen and Danny’s East Village apartment, which is constantly referred to as a tenement, is as ample and attractive as any New York apartment I know. Perhaps what Korins is suggesting is that, when the bourgeoisie moves into the East Village, they somehow manage to make even a tenement look grand. It doesn’t play.

 

As it stands, The Wake is not ready to send the corpse of the Bush administration to its rest. Lisa Kron has a lot of work to do before she can do that successfully. And it will take more than cutting and tightening. The play has to explode before our eyes. In the theater, no amount of talk, even good talk, can replace an explosion.

 

harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com

 

 
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