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A CurtainUp Review

By Chloe Veltman

As light spews into the darkness from the gaping mouth of an enormous refrigerator, one of America's popularly misunderstood women slits her wrists at the kitchen table. Transfixed by the flickering murmur of a television set hopping from channel to channel, we are unaware of the drama taking place right in front of our eyes.

In Julia Dahl's world of superficial interests, the real tragedies of life pass everyone by. As Josephine, a horsey debutante, turns issues such as the minimum wage into meaningless slogans in her campaign to become First Lady, Dennis, the waspishly oafish secretary to President Clinton cuts a marriage proposal short when interrupted by a call on his cellular phone from the White House. Even Edgar, the basically decent would-be congressman, is too self-absorbed to grasp the machinations of his ambitious fiancée, Josephine, and his sister Frances' sorrow.

Bewildered and upset by the people around her, the nervy Frances fixates on buying the right sort of carrots to complete the snowman's anatomy, and shrieks at Josephine for decorating the Christmas tree, a job that traditionally befell her. If the Machiavellian preoccupations of her nearest and dearest sent her fleeing from New York to Los Angeles, the vapid comfort she found there, sharing an apartment with Charlie, the dopey beach dude and his girlfriend, did little to cheer her up.

When Henry, a Republican patriarch and father to Edgar and Frances, hosts a New Year's gathering for his children at the family's second home on Sag Harbour, no one expects Frances to have invited Charlie along. Claiming to be in love with the mild-mannered surfer, Frances disputes the impending arrival of Dennis, her former lover. As Josephine begs the old Republican for funds to help his Democrat son run for Congress, so she imagines a union between her fiancée's sister and Clinton's henchman, Dennis, will serve her own ambition well.

Whatever unhappiness drove her from New York in the first place, that which befalls the frenzied Frances during the course of Wonderland little amounts to her climactic suicide. In a scene bordering on farce, Dennis, summoning up all his romantic powers, asks Frances to marry him. Cornily regurgitating hackneyed moments inspired by J. D. Salinger, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and pastel-colored memories from the golden-age of Hollywood, he goes down on one knee, pulls out a ring, and half-pops the question before dashing out of the room to take a call from Bill. Mildly funny, and only vaguely sad, the scene neither moves the crowd nor propels the denouement. Without imagining for a moment that the botched proposal instigates the suicide, the incessant bitching between the well-heeled Josephine and her lover's rag-tag sister provides even less impetus.

Writer and director Julia Dahl may be the hottest thing in television drama, but the skills that endow Fox's Golden Globe Award winning series Party of Five with its incisive and often sensitive view of domestic life, do not transfer easily to the stage. The unimaginatively-designed kitchen and lounge of Henry's Sag Harbour residence is frequently beleaguered by the techniques of television drama, such as cross-cutting between rooms (for seemingly no dramatic purpose). The language too hails straight from the world of prime-time drama (nobody sees me and now it's all over etc.), and Seinfeld-style sit-com, (I've been raped - who's been reading my journal?! etc.), with no ironic glance at the role mid-century television and film played in feeding characters like Dennis, his lines.

More sensitive directing might persuade us that Wonderland goes beyond blandly re-iterating the loss of the dream, that tired old sine qua non of American drama, so deftly summed up by Miller, O'Neill and Williams fifty years ago. Edgar's desire to be outdoors (reminiscent of Miller's Biff in Death of a Salesman), and Frances' Blanche Duboisesque desperation, might burst that rusty old pipe-dream, if the actors would just avoid staring vacantly into middle distance and declaiming almost every monologue as if their very life depended upon it.

The play's comedic aspects -- smart-arse one liners about White House interns and parochial gags about New York -- give way to some amateurish raving drunk acting by Paul Fitzgerald as Edgar. James Patrick Stewart as Dennis is somewhat humorous in his portrait of Clinton's sleazy ex-frat lackey, but he approaches the part as if it were a close friend with a bad case of body odour. The actor's unabated ironic commentary on his role creates an imbalance in the ensemble, most unhelpful to his fellow cast-members.

Kate Jennings Grant does on occasion move beyond the conniving battle-axe that is Josephine. In one cleverly-constructed scene, where tempted by the arrogant Dennis into exchanging sex for favours in the White House, a single second of vulnerability sharply exposes a fractured inner life. With her constant bleating, Christine Marie Burke's Frances is more little lost lamb than woman-on-the-verge-of-action. Her child-like portrayal only manages to live up to the other characters' view of her as the deranged little sister.

As Ryan E. McMahon's vivid rainbow-sky gradually shifts from glowing pink to azure and steely grey, so Wonderland creeps towards its doleful conclusion, that the dream world, if it ever existed in the past, is just a glossy fiction today.

As I was travelling home from the theater on the subway after the performance, a poster caught my eye. In the background, a grey image of an exploding bomb with the slogan "Make Some Sense of America" was foreshadowed by an inset reproduction of Grant Wood's painting, American Gothic. The predictable message encoded in the juxtaposition of Grant's rural utopia with the disillusionment of the bomb recalled the intentions of Dahl's play. In a fit of boredom, or mild irritation perhaps, someone had got out a marker and endowed Grant's respectable American farmer with a turban, and his homely wife with a fine set of moustaches. A ridiculous but subversive refocusing of the image and its message, this graffiti-artist's irreverence spoke more immediately about the loss of the dream than two hours spent in the theater that night.

Written and Directed by Julia Dahl
With Brad Beyer, Christine Marie Burke, Paul Fitzgerald, Kate Jennings Grant, Henry Strozier, James Patrick Stewart
Set and Costume Design: Beowulf Boritt
Lighting Design: Ryan E. McMahon
Sound Consultant: Hector Olivari
The American Place Theater, 111 West 46th Street, (212/ 840 2960)
6/02/99-7/25/99;opening 6/13/99.
Reviewed by Chloe Veltman, based on 6/12 performance

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