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Dark Rapture explores language without involving us dramatically; Slavs! eavesdrops on a nation involved in a deeply searching dialogue

Wednesday, Mar 13 1996
As the curtain rises on Eric Overmeyer's Dark Rapture -- directed by David Petrarca as American Conservatory Theater's second Geary homecoming production -- the lights (by Peter Maradudin) dimly, almost reluctantly, reveal a bare film-noirish set (by Adrianne Lobel). Front and center is a small, plain wooden desk with a typewriter and a bottle of whiskey. Ray (Richard Snyder) emerges from the upstage shadows, sits at the desk, and begins to type, pausing only to swig from the bottle. His words -- screen directions for a film script -- appear above the stage as supertitles while sounds of the fire that rages outside -- or is it raging in his imagination? -- provide punctuation.

During the course of the play, Ray writes the story he is living: He takes an opportunity to disappear and revises his future when his house (presumably with him inside) is consumed in the East Bay firestorm. He also learns of his wife's adultery and betrays her in return; he swindles some clownish thugs out of millions of dollars; and ultimately he traps himself in a new life even more confining than the old.

That's the scenario Overmeyer is using to explore the nature of genre and language codes. (He has described this 1992 play as "the theatrical equivalent of the modern crime novel, particularly those by Raymond Chandler and Elmore Leonard.") While Petrarca's production is slick, energetic, and undeniably entertaining, as drama it fails to transcend its self-described limits and, as a result, fails to reveal much about its intended subject: the possibilities and pitfalls of self-reinvention.

The play is full of colorful yet generic characters who move the B-movie plot along at a goodly pace. The firestorm moves closer, and Ray grabs the bottle and runs outside to watch. As played by Snyder, he is the quintessential ordinary guy; the colorless observer whom everyone underestimates; the bland husband who yearns to be a lady-killer. Ray is joined by a stranger who introduces himself as Babcock (given a wonderfully sinister edge by Shawn Elliott). Together they marvel at the fire and reminisce about other cataclysms: hurricanes, volcanoes, the mutually experienced dark days of the Vietnam War, and night flights over Cambodia where "you never know what's out there in the dark rapture." Babcock suggests Ray return to his house and salvage a few mementos and valuables. Ray runs off, and Babcock watches as he disappears into the flames and apparently goes to his death.

The scene cuts swiftly to the white heat of Cabo San Lucas, where Ray's wife, Julia (Deirdre Lovejoy), a generic would-be movie producer/sex goddess, is enjoying an adulterous interlude with Danny (Mark Feuerstein), a generic Hollywood stuntman. Blissfully unaware of what is happening back home in Oakland, she swills tequila and celebrates sex, booze, and heat.

Returning to the site of the fire, we find a pair of Mafia types -- Lexington (Matt DeCaro) and Vegas (Rod Gnapp) -- who recall Shakespeare's generic oafish clowns (except even when Shakespeare was writing such characters he particularized them, something Overmeyer hasn't quite mastered). They speculate on the possibility that Ray might have survived the inferno and seized his unique opportunity -- as well as their money. They begin their search.

Then we're in Seattle, "the city where the sun don't shine," and Ray surfaces to enjoy a latte and muse about his future. He meets Renee (Jossara Jinaro), a tourist from Tampa with Cuban connections. Eventually he wanders to Key West where he falls in with Max -- "That's my name, don't wear it out" -- his sexy soul mate (played with deliciously provocative verve by Zachary Barton).

From this glitzy and provocative beginning, the play unfolds its plot. Subthemes of ancient racial turmoil -- in this case, it's Armenians vs. Turks -- are woven in along with Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories. Scenes are strung together with riffs of rough jazz (music by Rob Milburn), and suspense is not so much built as it is sketched. Out of curiosity we want to know how it all turns out. But curiosity is the limit of our involvement. We care nothing for any of the characters who never develop beyond easily identifiable types.

This, it seems, is intentional. Overmeyer is entranced by the forms and codes associated with detective fiction, and he wants to draw our attention to same. Much has been made in pre-production publicity of the playwright's interest in language, but Dark Rapture isn't really about language. It's about diction, as in what constitutes the choice or use of words. The items onstage at curtain's rise -- the desk, the whiskey, the typewriter, and the slightly drunk man -- are all code for "writer." We understand at once what we are seeing. The adulterous wife, the hotel room, the boyfriend with nothing to recommend him but a good body and stamina are also code. As are the mobsters, the hustlers, and the other fringe types.

Everything -- but everything -- is familiar: Ray, Julia, Babcock, Max, and everyone else in Dark Rapture could easily be relocated to any number of familiar books, movies, and plays. I found myself being bombarded by reminders of Body Heat and The Grifters, to name two, as well as classics like The Big Sleep and other novels. (I was even reminded of a film-noirish Broadway musical of several years back called City of Angels, which actually featured Shawn Elliott.) All these millions provide the tweak of pleasure that comes with recognition. But when everything onstage is so neatly and easily encoded, there isn't much in the way of real suspense or drama. What we experience is entertaining but hardly rapturous.

Tony Kushner's Slavs!, on the other hand (exclamation point notwithstanding), brings us remarkably close to rapture. Having chipped it from his megamasterwork, Angels in America, Kushner has created a dramatic meditation on what it means to face an uncertain future and how language can provide a context in which to hold the past. Begun as an integral part of Perestroika (which I saw as a five-plus-hour staged reading when Angels made its bow at the Eureka in 1991), Slavs! eavesdrops on a nation engaged in a deeply searching dialogue about what kind of society it intends to be.

In its streamlined, 90-minute length, Slavs! (making its local debut at Berkeley Rep, directed by Tony Taccone) is funny, poignant, heartbreaking, and -- in the end -- peculiarly disturbing.

The opening scene sets the wry tone: It is 1985, and two well-padded babushkas (Jeanne Paulsen and Lynne Soffer) sweep snow from the steps of the Soviet Politburo. As they push their twig brooms over the cement -- relocating rather than removing snow -- they parrot various predigested political arguments, which are made all the more incongruous -- and funny -- by the women's casually flat delivery.

Kate Edmunds' superbly striking set (lighting is by Stephen LeGrand) revolves to reveal a room of brilliant red where the old faithful of the party take a break from the debate in progress on the floor. They can't stop arguing among themselves; in the course of the scene, the oldest, Aleksii (Jack Axelrod) -- devotees of Angels will remember this character from the opening monologue of Perestroika -- makes an impassioned appeal for a new theory: "Show me the words that will reorder the world, or else keep silent." He then expires, as does one of his cohorts (Ken Grantham), who has a heart attack while literally leaping to see the future.

The play shifts from the Kremlin to a lab where the preserved brains of Soviet intellectual heroes are kept. Echoing the mystical elements of Angels, there is eerie music and rumblings that may be coming from heaven (just a guess). A radio suddenly blares rock 'n' roll, and the pink-haired, coverall-clad female security guard, Katherina (Sheila Tousey), opens the door to Popolitipov (Ray Reinhardt), one of the party brass, who is trying to woo her with vodka, cigarettes, and sentimental songs on his guitar. She is the future -- ironically guarding the remains of the past -- whose interest in Poppy, as she calls him, is strictly limited to what he can procure for her. She's a lesbian, she tells him proudly, whooping with drunken glee when her shy lover, a pediatrician (played with touching reticence by Jeanne Paulsen), arrives for a late-night tryst.

The scene -- as does each of the others -- becomes a perfectly rendered composite of a society in disarray: boozy, befuddled people trying to emerge as individuals and find ways to love and connect, who manage only to brutalize one another. "We have not made kind people," Poppy remarks bitterly, his heart broken by Katherina's cavalier dismissal.

Kushner moves the play and the discussion to Siberia, 1992. There the reluctant lesbian doctor, having been banished for her illicit affair, confronts a government functionary called, without further comment, Rodent (Michael Santo). The doctor has been appealing to Moscow to act on behalf of children who are genetically damaged as a result of environmental pollution. The child in question is Vodya (given dignity and presence by Rose Lockwood-Holden), mute and unresponsive since birth. Of course Rodent has no money for compensation, no solutions to the overwhelming problems.

When next we meet Vodya, it is in heaven -- a Kushner-esque place where the deceased party pols from the first scenes (Axelrod and Grantham) play an endless game of cards while wondering about what's happening on Earth. Vodya has, as expected, died, but in death she gains a voice. It is her speech -- an emphatically adult, sophisticated monologue that attempts to assess the accomplishments of the Soviets and ends with Lenin's great question, "What is to be done?" -- that throws the play into a peculiar, self-conscious confusion.

Clearly Kushner wishes the dramatic arc of Slavs! to begin with the old and end with the young. He is also keenly aware that the latter perspective is offered from the grave, hardly a hopeful stance. But the words sound so out of place in Lockwood-Holden's mouth -- in spite of her beautifully focused presentation and Taccone's unflinching direction -- that for me the play spun on itself and nearly wobbled off the track.

Still, it's a powerful drama that manages for the most part to deal eloquently with the essential uncertainty of history. Slavs! provides the unique experience of orienting the audience in the present and then thrusting us into the future -- which is surely Kushner's version of the dark rapture.

Dark Rapture runs through March 31 at the Geary Theater in S.F.; call 749-2228.

Slavs! Thinking About the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness runs through April 19 at Berkeley Rep; call (510) 845-4700.

About The Author

Mari Coates


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