Wounded Puppy Playwright Barks Up the Wrong Mountain

Things are looking up! Only last week, I romantically advocated a return to healthy booing at the theater-a return, if you will, to Elizabethan times, which some of us remember so well. And there! At the end of the first act of David Hirson’s apparent satire of bad theater, Wrong Mountain , a single, glorious boo was heard. So you see the tremendous influence I have?

It’s unfortunate-to say the least-that Mr. Hirson’s new play turns out to be an example of the bad theater he’s satirizing. But the muddled drama itself is actually begging to be booed. The perverse Mr. Hirson spends a good deal of his time insulting the audience attending his own play as “morons” who know nothing about theater. That lonely, defiant boo at the close of Act 1 was therefore only fair and right, and I shall be adding a few of my own.

David Hirson has written only two plays, and both have been overambitiously produced on Broadway. (Both have also been directed by Richard Jones of Titanic .) Mr. Hirson’s La Bête , his first play almost a decade ago, is known primarily as one of the most renowned flops in Broadway history. Written in heroic couplets, it was set in the 17th century. The hero of his Molièresque verse-comedy was an egomaniacal actor, its theme nothing less than the cultural decline of the West. Mr. Hirson’s second play, Wrong Mountain , at the Eugene O’Neill Theater, has a hero who’s an unappreciated poet, and its theme is the decline and fall of theater!

We must avoid the suspicion that Mr. Hirson has written Wrong Mountain as payback for the harsh critical response to La Bête . We must avoid that at any cost. (Besides, I didn’t see La Bête .) The loneliness of the embittered poet is a familiar plight, however, and Salieri in Amadeus famously absolves us all of mediocrity. But Mr. Hirson’s combustible 60-year-old poet Henry Dennett, played by the good Ron Rifkin with a vein-popping choleric fury that would also suit Tamburlaine the Great laying waste the world, forgives us nothing.

“You want to know what’s going on inside the tent,” Henry protests about all theater. “I’ll tell you what’s going on inside the tent! A macabre peep show for third-rate minds eager to have their sympathies titillated and their sense of humanity massaged by the dime-store imaginings of second-rate minds.”

The above does not apply to Wrong Mountain , of course. I guess it’s more relevant to theater in general . Anyone who appreciates Wrong Mountain as a uniquely brilliant metaphysical fable about the true nature of art and society must therefore possess a first-rate mind, like its author. But theatergoers like us, according to his dyspeptic hero, revel in “the kind of sanctimonious kitsch that’s embraced by an audience of suburban morons dimwitted enough to believe that by going to a play they’re having some sort of ‘cultural experience.'”

Maybe so. It happens. But on balance, I believe there are no bad audiences, only bad plays. But let’s not make a mountain out of a molehill. Mr. Hirson takes a few pot shots at complacent theater audiences, and we would welcome them if this smug, patronizing play truly shocked and lacerated. Then again, its central “philosophical” questions amount to the weary “Is success worth it?” (Probably not.) “Does art involve compromise?” (Yes.) And “Am I climbing the wrong mountain-or what?” (Who knows!) In such portentous ways, Wrong Mountain ends up parodying its own superior image of itself as an elevated play of ideas.

In fact, there isn’t anything in it that amounts to an idea. There are mouthpieces of familiar arguments, there are facile parodies and clichés. Who doesn’t value the first-rate over mediocrity? Who wouldn’t prefer to see a fine play rather than trash? But Mr. Hirson’s hero-poet, a vindictive bully rather than a sensitive puppy, sets himself up as the custodian of excellence. He challenges his ex-wife’s fiancé, Guy, a hugely successful commercial playwright, would you believe, to a bet that he can get a play he’s written produced within six months. He does just that, of course, and the deflated Guy, who’s also staggeringly stupid, breaks down in tears with the words: “Goddamn you! That’s the play I’ve always wanted to write. You’re the playwright I’ve spent my whole life trying to be. Maybe you’re right. Maybe I should aspire to writing crap. Maybe crap is too good for me after all …”

Oh dear. There’s also no business like show business, you know. But no one in Wrong Mountain strikes us as real, including poor Henry with his inner heavily symbolic parasitic worm eating him away by being fed too much corn. (Geddit?) His doctor’s stuck on show tunes; his family’s a mess of loony intellectual pretensions; and the director of Henry’s play-which is also entitled Wrong Mountain -is the usual aging queen given to calling out cozily to the company: “Group hug, everyone!”

Poor soul. He’s the campy theater director of endlessly parodiable cheap laughs who’s wheeled out like the comic cow in pantomime. Far from being a cultivated piece, nowhere does Mr. Hirson pander more to the lowbrow than in these awful backstage scenes fulfilling the crude notion that theater people are divinely “mad” and, well, theatrical .

And then there’s the ludicrous Lithia Spring, a.k.a. the Fountain of Success. For reasons that still remain bewildering to me, Henry, the theater hater, reverses everything he believes in after the intermission. He drinks at the heavily symbolic Fountain of Success, which can be found a short train ride away, and now miraculously embraces the sentimentality of showbiz folk and the dumb triumph of acceptance. It must have something to do with the water. A transformed man, the reborn Henry loves all the awards and ovations and everything popular success can offer, which is known as having it both ways. But that’s quite a disgusting commercial turn around for you, like a happy end in an episode of a so-so sitcom. It would have been a no-no in Act 1.

But is our boy happy at last? I hope I won’t be spoiling it for you by confiding that the newly successful Henry is cured of his intestinal worm, but he now suffers from another heavily symbolic complaint. Alas, his doctor, the one who adores musicals, has given him a dermatological test that reveals a most serious skin disorder leaving our hero with no recognizable face. And there it is.

It’s food for thought, of course. As poor old Henry put it about theatergoers: “They go to bask in the flattering image of themselves as people who are open enough to have their values challenged, which is just another way of saying that they go to the theater to have their values confirmed.”

Oh, sure.