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Crying Wolff 

Word for Word brings plain stories to vivid life

Wednesday, Aug 7 2002
Tobias Wolff is not my favorite writer. He's skillful and funny but a little bland. The writers I love have a sharp and painterly eye for detail -- Iris Murdoch, Robertson Davies, William Faulkner -- but none of them, I've noticed, ever gets produced by Word for Word. Why? I'm starting to think the company looks for fiction written in a pale or flat-footed style in order to show off with lively, colorful embellishments on the stage. They did it with Alice Munro's story "A Friend of My Youth" a few years ago, and they've done it again with these three stories by Wolff.

Take "Bullet in the Brain," for example. The main character, Anders, is a literary critic who walks into a bank just before two gunmen decide to rob it. One of the gunmen shoots Anders through the head, and the reader takes a slow trip through Anders' memory before it shuts down. It's a clever idea. Wolff works in details about Anders' noxious personality before the shooting, and has an excuse, afterward, to show the critic as a boy and a young man. But he never describes him physically. His wife, girlfriend, and daughter also float by without any visuals; the whole sequence of the critic's death is less hallucinatory, in print, than it could be.

Word for Word solves these problems. The company is devoted to producing pieces of fiction without changing a single word. So the first line of "Bullet in the Brain" -- which is narrative -- comes from the critic's mouth. "Anders couldn't get to the bank until just before it closed, so of course the line was endless and he got stuck behind two women whose loud, stupid conversation put him in a murderous temper." Paul Finocchiaro finds a petulant, overweening tone for Anders, and he looks like a blowhard, with his dashing red scarf and dark blazer billowing over a literary gut: Right away you have color and sound.

The death sequence is even better. Susan Harloe plays the bullet, squatting with a gray helmet on her head. Nancy Shelby plays an invented character, Time, who oversees Anders' memory. "After striking the cranium the bullet was moving at 900 feet per second, a pathetically sluggish, glacial pace compared to the synaptic lightning that flashed around it," writes Wolff. Harloe, as the bullet, inches forward, while shadowy actors behind her suggest the critic's mulched brain by billowing a parachute under Jim Cave's mottled red lights.

The other two stories are just as vivid and clear onstage. "In the Garden of the North American Martyrs" and "Lady's Dream" both focus on women who make certain crucial, life-changing decisions. Lady is a Southern woman remembering her lazy, hotblooded courtship with a stern Yankee named Robert. She's dozing beside him in a car, and her mind wanders back to a sultry summer on the porch with her sister and mom, just before Robert comes to visit. As a bored married woman, in the car, she's played by Nancy Shelby, who looks thin and correct in a prim pantsuit. On the porch, as an excitable girl, she's played by Ginger Eckert, who looks like another person altogether -- plump, sensual, needy, sweet. Since Wolff has left the physical details up to the reader, director Stephanie Hunt is free to make the old and young Lady look as fat or as thin as she likes, and the difference between Eckert and Shelby is surprising without being hard to believe. Both actors do strong work, too. It adds drama to watch the older Lady look on and narrate while the younger Lady makes her bad decision.

Stephanie Hunt also directs "Bullet in the Brain"; Sheila Balter directs the longer story, "In the Garden of the North American Martyrs," about a professor named Mary who flies to New York for a job interview. This piece is weightier than the others; it turns on the subtleties of a relationship between Mary and Louise, the brassy and self-involved colleague who lands her the interview. Louise forgets to tell Mary that part of the process involves a guest lecture, so Mary shows up without notes and has to decide whether to give a phony speech from Louise's notes. Susan Harloe plays Mary as an earnest, cheerful, but hapless victim (until the end); Nancy Shelby is a willful, impossible Louise who says things like, "Déjà vu is a hoax. It's just a chemical imbalance." The ensemble does an especially good job as a churning campus power plant; and Balter keeps the story's mild suspense pulled tight until the very last line.

I don't mean to knock Wolff by calling him bland, because none of his stories would make good theater if he weren't an excellent writer. But he doesn't have a lot of surface flair, and Word for Word, as usual, dances around that problem -- or uses it -- to offer a playful new vision of his work.


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