A History of Things That Never Happened is a brand-new play at the Magic by Sharmon Hilfinger dealing with "a pervasive and persistent romantic myth that is still alive and well in our culture, especially for women," according to the program. Good! In general, we like plays that send up romantic myths and old-fashioned notions floating unquestioned on television airwaves and even in classic books. That's what theater is for, more or less. If it can't overwhelm electronic media, at least it can toss intellectual monkey wrenches. So -- what myth?
The show starts with Melissa, a pretty young woman, reading a book while sitting on a plane next to a blowhard named Chip. Chip wants to know what she's reading (it's Anna Karenina), then admits that he only knows the movie. In fact, all he reads nowadays are postcards, which it's his hobby to collect and trade with strangers. Soon enough he begs for Melissa's address -- just to send a postcard -- and Melissa reluctantly writes something down. Weeks later a 50-year-old single mother in New York gets a postcard from "Vronsky."
This is how a torrid pen-pal relationship starts in middle age for Elaine Remy, who doesn't realize that the man sending literate postcards from Belmont, Calif., is just an ugly slob named Chip who chatted up her son's ex-girlfriend in a plane to San Francisco. The son, Jason, has moved home to Elaine's in a slackerish funk, after breaking up with Melissa and losing his job. He's under the sway of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and his plans for the future involve piecing together a box of parts that used to be a Triumph motorbike. So two romantics are living under one roof in New York: Jason the road-starved slacker, and his mom.
So far so good. The middle-class myths of two generations are set up for explosion. Elaine, steeped in the doomed romanticism of heroines she read about in college, lolls alone on her bed at night and imagines her mysterious friend in half a dozen disguises -- as Vronsky, as Heathcliff, as Jason's dad (whom she never married), as a handsome stranger, etc. The man comes on in different funny costumes, either to sweep Elaine off her feet or to talk about desire. These tropes on old novels and Elaine's romantic history are the "things that never happened." In the meantime Jason maunders on about Mindy (his name for Melissa, who's recently quit being a slacker and found a job at the New York Times), tries to build his motorcycle in Elaine's kitchen, gives up, and maunders some more about Mindy. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is failing him the way Elaine's dreams of being loved have betrayed her, and they both wind up prey to the Karenina-esque weakness of neediness.
Not bad, at least in theory. Maybe I just wish it were funnier. The best character in the Magic's production is Chip, because W. Francis Walters is free to play him as a coarse old fart. He's a braying, pretzel-eating divorce who sits in his La-Z-Boy in Belmont watching videos of the novels Elaine mentions in her cards. His faded blond hair is swept back in a stylish wave; he's bulldoggish and rude and frankly more entertaining than anyone else. After chatting up Melissa on the plane -- in an opening reminiscent of the first scene in Tolstoy's Kreutzer Sonata -- this poor dinosaur of a man says, "I've probably already offended you according to some new rule I haven't heard about yet." Yeah. Probably.
His fantasies of Melissa are pornographic. At first this is funny, but later becomes obvious and feels unsophisticated. Actually, the strongest Chip scenes deal not with his fantasies but with his daughter, Rita, a woman who can match his brashness (Lisa Steindler). Their argument at the end of Act 1 about Rita's boyfriend "holding out" on her by not proposing marriage succeeds like the best bickering in All in the Family -- a high compliment, since I happen to like All in the Family.
The other actors fade in and out. Nancy Madden plays a solid Elaine but sometimes loses her emotional thread. Alex Moggridge looks like a slacker of a grown-up son, in Army pants and a pair of T-shirts (one on top of the other), and has a charming manner, but his gentle satire of Jason isn't as sharp as it could be. He grooves to Pink Floyd while he works on the bike, and goes on about "the constraints of Western civilization" unveiled for him by Robert Pirsig. The details are right but somehow the portrait feels ordinary, even cliched.
History marks the debut in San Francisco of Ms. Hilfinger as a playwright, and of her group -- the Bootstrap Foundation -- as a theater company. Hilfinger started as an actor in the early '70s but went into publishing instead, joined "the first batch of female sales people at Harper and Row," got married, raised her kids, etc. Now she lives in Palo Alto. Her play's feminist focus on the illusions of romance as a personal vulnerability -- instead of as a cruel trap set by the establishment -- sets it on the right track, in my mind, but what Hilfinger doesn't seem to notice is how much fun she could have exploding the myths she sets out to destroy. It's another good-but-not-great offering in the Magic's current lukewarm season.