Wednesday, March 17, 2010

'And Things That Go Bump in the Night'

Beginning this week, the Kennedy Center is presenting three plays by Terrence McNally with a common theme derived from the playwright's lifelong love of opera.

The first play, The Golden Age, is having its world premiere as part of what the Kennedy Center is calling "Terrence McNally's Nights at the Opera," (which will not, I am confident, be confused with the Marx Brothers' classic movie).

The other two plays are The Lisbon Traviata (1985), which originally starred Tony Award-winning actor Nathan Lane (whose role at the Kennedy Center is taken by Tony-winner John Glover), and Master Class (1995), which originally starred Zoe Caldwell as Maria Callas (whose Tony-winning role in Washington will be played by Tony-winner Tyne Daly).

As I am committed to cover the Virginia Festival of the Book this week, I will -- regrettably -- miss the premiere of The Golden Age.  Fortunately, I will be able to see both The Lisbon Traviata and Master Class.  I am looking forward to the experience, as McNally is one of my favorite playwrights. (My colleague, Tim Hulsey, has the assignment to review The Golden Age at the Kennedy Center.)

In an interview with Peter Marks that appeared in Sunday's Washington Post, McNally mentions his first Broadway play, which closed after six previews and 16 performances:

"I've never felt like a critics' darling," he says, quickly summoning a memory from 45 years ago of the drubbing of his first Broadway play, "And Things That Go Bump in the Night." It opened April 26, 1965 and closed 12 days later. "I thought the reviews would say, 'flawed, uneven, by a vital, talented playwright,' " he recalls. "But one said, 'It would have been better if Terrence McNally's parents smothered him in his cradle.' Actually, two reviews of my first play mentioned my death."

Still, McNally persevered: a producer, Theodore Mann, filled the theater for that first play's short run by charging $1 a ticket, thereby bolstering McNally's faith in his abilities. And he has since faced far, far tougher days: the death of a longtime lover, his own recurring struggle with lung cancer. These days, he says, he is out of the woods and feeling better.
By coincidence, hours before I read that article, I had just dug up my review of the American Century Theater's 1999 production of And Things That Go Bump in the Night. Unlike the New York critics of 1965, who were tepid (at best) in their reactions to the play, I liked it.

This review appeared in The Metro Herald (Alexandria, Virginia) on January 15, 1999:
American Century Theatre Goes "Bump in the Night"
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

Beware, audiences: The cusp of the new millennium is sure to bring many entertainments that rely upon an apocalyptic premise. Such plays, movies, and TV dramas are not new. They are simply more likely to become both numerous and apparent as we lurch toward the year 2000. For it seems that whenever the calendar is about to flip over to the next ‘00, people go crazy with notions of impending doom. And when the odometer of life hits three zeroes, it's time to shield your fan from what else might hit.

So it is particularly timely for the American Century Theatre (TACT) in Arlington to present Terrence McNally's early doomsday play, And Things That Go Bump in the Night, which builds a dysfunctional family upon the twin foundations of an apocalyptic premise and a phantom menace (another phrase you'll be hearing much in the coming year).

In their 1982 anthology called The Apocalyptic Premise, Ernest W. Lefever and E. Stephen Hunt explain that term in this way:

"One such influential idea is ‘the apocalyptic premise,' which has always flourished in times of trouble and uncertainty. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament have vivid apocalyptic passages portraying how the world will end for both the righteous and the unrighteous. These prophetic visions, properly understood, lend perspective to faithful Jews and Christians, who believe there is a dimension beyond history that gives meaning to the here and now.

"But in current secular usage, an apocalyptic event is one that spells doom for a nation, a civilization, or the human race itself. Therefore the apocalyptic premise lacks the hope of the biblical vision of ‘a new heaven and a new earth.' . . . .

"One's view of the threat is always closely related to fear, that powerful human emotion that can be harnessed for good or manipulated for ill. Reasoned fear based on real dangers is essential for survival. Unreasoning fear based on myths or highly unlikely dangers can lead to unwise and destructive behavior."

I cite this rather lengthy passage because, although it is improbable that Lefever and Hunt were familiar with McNally's 1964 play, and impossible for McNally to have read their book (written 18 years later), there is a mutual understanding among the three thinkers that is remarkable. For, if nothing else, the family McNally portrays in And Things That Go Bump in the Night (ATTGBN) -- matriarch Ruby (Maureen Kerrigan), offspring Sigfrid (Gabriel Zucker) and Lakme (Jennifer Demayo), the physically crippled Grandfa (Alan Edick), and the emotionally crippled Fa (Mike Goll) -- is a spot-on example of the "unreasoning fear" that leads to destruction.

Like Amy Freed's Freedomland (presented earlier this season at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre), ATTGBN presents us with a stranger brought into the home of an eccentric family. It becomes clear that strangers visit this family each night, and each night the family puts the stranger -- "the friend" -- through a ritual performance that ends in torture and death.

The context for this odd, deadly ritual is an unseen (but heard) menace -- "moving west," as Fa repeats catatonically. The family, like others in their community, has taken refuge in their basement -- "sanctuary" -- and has electrified the fence surrounding their home, to keep out unwanted animals and humans. They have, in effect, retreated from the human race, from civilization itself, overcome by fear that has paralyzed their normality and set off a weird psychosexual syndrome that is one-third voyeurism, one-third vampirism, and one-third exhibitionism, spiced up with sado-masochism.

McNally wrote this play, his first to be produced on Broadway, when he was in his early 20s and the world was enmeshed in the Cold War. The Cuban Missile Crisis had just passed, John F. Kennedy had recently been assassinated, and the Vietnam War was about to heat up. The measured optimism of the 1950s had given way to a cynical pessimism that permeates this play, which has much in common with the sci-fi horror films of the same period (not only classics like Night of the Living Dead, but also the so-bad-they're-good films of Ed Wood like Plan 9 from Outer Space).

In this light, it makes perfect sense that Ruby's key speech -- presented as a tape recording musing about the future, played back in both the first act and the second act -- is a mirror image, or perhaps better, a negative image of William Faulkner's 1950 Nobel laureate address. While Ruby proclaims "we will not prevail" and "we cannot endure," Faulkner, in the face of the same nuclear threat that motivates McNally and his characters, asserted "I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance."

Ruby's family consists of "dead souls," in Gogol's gripping phrase. Her husband, her children's father, sits motionless in a chair, staring at a wall. Her father-in-law looks forward to leaving the family home to take up residence in an insane asylum. Her 14-year-old daughter fancies herself as Batgirl, while her 21-year-old son is a bisexual predator who, not to put too fine a point on it, presages Jeffrey Dahmer. Sanity arrives in the form of the outsider, Clarence (David Muse), who alone has a living soul "capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance," who expresses a simple but profound reason for living that this family rejects as too lacking in despair.

The writing in this play is not that of the mature McNally, who went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and Tony awards for Ragtime (reviewed in The Metro Herald last July) and Love! Valour! Compassion! (reviewed here in June 1997). It bears resemblance to some of the work of McNally's contemporary, Sam Shepard (in particular, Buried Child), but it is definitely a juvenile work, entertaining in a darkly comedic way, but still as shocking in its way as it was when it was booed off the stage in New York 35 years ago.

While all of the actors prove excellent in their roles, and the direction by Terry D. Kester deserves high praise, the real star of the show is the sound design. (Ads for ATTGBN say it is presented in "Sensurround.") Sound designer Ricki Kushner has done the heavy lifting to create the atmosphere for the show. Sound is key in many ways -- Ruby's opening speech occurs in darkness, over an intercom; the "phantom menace" is a rumble that verily shakes the theatre; recordings advance the action and let us in on the inner workings of the characters. If there is a Helen Hayes award for sound design, Kushner deserves it.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

When I was an art major at Pratt, I was cast as Lakme in a Pratt production of "And Things That Go Bump in the Night." I wish someone in the audience (or the director?) had made a home movie of it, or even a tape recording. Video camcorders hadn't been invented at the time. I'd love to see what we did. I'd even love to see still photos of the production. The Pratt library's archivist wasn't able to help me.