One Blocked Writer, Two Crazies and Three Actor’s No-Nos

There are three things actors never do. They never give up, never thank a critic for a good review and never doubt the genius of a play in which they’re appearing.

That’s about it, really. I once knew an actor who never had carrot soup because his complexion turned orange. (Well, would you ?) But obviously that doesn’t apply to everyone.

What set me thinking about thespians are the two new plays I saw this week. The first is about a belligerent, blocked Nobel Prize–winning novelist and what happens when a pretty twentysomething assistant (who’s a would-be novelist) comes to stay with his family in Connecticut. The second is a drama about a born-again Christian schizophrenic who meets another schizophrenic on a plane.

I’m afraid that both of them left me wondering how actors actually get through . They can’t say, as we might, “My God, what are they all doing?” They’re the ones doing it. Actors can never doubt a play they’re appearing in for a single second or they’re lost. The moment they judge it, they can’t perform it. But how they keep going in stuff like this strikes me as a form of unheralded mad heroism.

Those most accomplished veterans, Brian Murray and Marian Seldes, were the stars of Theresa Rebeck’s play about the Nobel laureate, The Butterfly Collection , which had a brief run at Playwrights Horizons. Mr. Murray played the bullying novelist, and the irrepressible Marian Seldes his smart, rather shrewd wife. Now Ms. Seldes has never been accused of underplaying anything, including hailing a cab. But here she was in a comparatively restrained mood (while winking slyly at us, as if to say: “Someone’s going to enjoy this and that someone is me”).

But let’s look, for a moment, at the drama itself. There’s the blocked, renowned novelist; his wife (who might have written chunks of his famous novels); the would-be novelist who’s the great man’s new assistant; the failed son who’s an embittered actor visiting with his girlfriend; and the other son, a pleasant antique dealer who might be gay but turns out straight. Writers, actors and antique dealers in Connecticut are what writers write about when writers haven’t got anything else to write about-right?

There’s a world out here! And it’s going to pieces. But Ms. Rebeck has looked inward to a limited horizon of feminism and nice and safe “ideas.” The Butterfly Collection might have shone with its potentially ambitious themes-the nature of genius and creation, fathers and sons, the relevance of theater and, yes, the redemptive power of art and women. But Ms. Rebeck has brought them all down to the commonplace. Men! Crushing those delicate little butterflies called Women. But who “saves” those bullying, feckless men, eh? Who inspires the tortured Nobel laureate to new heights-including the first believable woman he’s ever written?

The notion, incidentally, that a Nobel laureate would take writing and spelling lessons from his postgraduate assistant is what we call a stretch. So, too, the mediocre text we hear of his allegedly spell-binding prose. It just isn’t credible. There’s too much preciousness, one too many flighty moments in dark corners with the winsome dope of an assistant. And into all this sailed trusty Brian Murray and Marian Seldes, battered by storms.

Mr. Murray enters with guns blazing so loudly it is believed he stops the show at the Minskoff on 45th Street. I’m glad someone does. Saturday Night Fever could use a boost. Mr. Murray’s furious Nobel laureate looks like a bilious bear in the forest who’s been thrown a few unappetizing scraps for lunch. But the dramatist has given him the doggy-bag, while confusing artistic temperament and terror with bad temper. Mr. Murray chews disconsolately on the scraps, looking balefully around to scavenge some more-and finds the best scene in the play when he turns maliciously on the assistant to tell her she can’t write. She’s shown him a draft of her short story, and in the uncanny way that fine actors can transform everything in a split second, his blustering character at last comes to formidable life in the withering, deep contempt of an artist who doesn’t give a damn about anything except art.

Ms. Seldes, with her fluttering hands that seem to caress her dialogue and graciously point the way for others to approach, was in Kabuki mood. I see in the Playbill a boxed credit: “Marian Seldes’ wig by D.H. Lawrence.” But Ms. Seldes’ severely drawn-back hair, revealing a noble forehead, appeared to be her own as far as I could see. Either that, or D.H. Lawrence is a masterful wig-maker. Ms. Seldes poses a little; when reclining in elegant profile, she acquires a stentorian tilt of the head that reminds one more and more of Sir John Gielgud as Richard II. But no matter. She was fun acting up a storm, playing the wry literary wife.

It Gets Stranger

And so to two or three things about Craig Lucas’ Stranger , his new play at the Vineyard Theatre about two schizophrenics who meet on a plane. Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.

A play about schizophrenics is no laughing matter. A pseudo-philosophical mystery play about an insane druggie looking for salvation or death (Kyra Sedgwick) and an ex-con who’s a schizo born-again Christian offering salvation or death (David Strathairn) is another incredulous story.

Mr. Lucas ( Prelude to a Kiss and Reckless ) is known for his dream-like flights of psychotic fantasy and compassionate, sometimes murderously dark fairy tales. But Stranger is an earthbound muddle that leaves us tired and disbelieving, though Ms. Sedgwick all but knocks herself out trying to involve us.

Act 1 on the plane actually gives us the trapped, jet-lagged feeling of taking a tediously long flight with nut jobs. Ms. Sedgwick’s yammering Linda describes herself as “a nightmare” to be next to on a plane-and so she is. You might find yourself longing for the plane to crash as she tells her manic life story to David Strathairn’s taciturn ex-con named Hush.

Linda claims she comes from a liberal, wealthy background with smug, parodiable parents-”Blah, blah, blah,” as she says-and ran away from home, after which came tattoos, heroin, living in a trailer, marrying a postman, dropping acid together, watching TV, fucking, whatever. The postman, Frank, is slow and stupid; we meet him, being slow and stupid, in scenes with Linda. Anyway, blah, blah, blah, he inherits a million dollars when he’s 35, which he collects in cash, and Linda suddenly chains him up and steals the dough. She thought of setting him on fire, but she changed her mind. And here she is, on the plane. Crazeeee!

Hush-Bible in hand-occasionally interjects her neurotic, essentially tedious tale with pieties such as “The devil is always with us. The devil is always here” and “You’ve let evil into your heart, as we all do. Accept Jesus into your heart.” And Linda wonders if she’s the devil.

Hush heard voices as a youngster that said he was God. “That’s always the devil if you think you speak for God. But I didn’t know that,” he explains, and Mr. Strathairn makes the line sound about as spooky as “Can I have another pack of peanuts?” He tells Linda that the voices told him to kill a girl. (Mood music accompanies this moment and others.) He kidnapped her and kept her in a trunk for a year, until he was caught and sent to the slammer for 15 years. And here he is on the plane, traveling to a new life.

It’s a static and lengthy set-up for Act 2, which takes us to Linda’s place, where she chains up Hush and threatens to kill him with the gleaming butcher’s knife because he wouldn’t kill her. Or wouldn’t redeem her. I think . And to that I say, where is Marian Seldes when we need her?

Among other stuff, there’s a flashback of the teenager kidnapped by the dozy Hush and kept prisoner in a trunk for a year. After she got free, she returned to live in the trunk. By the close, Linda’s living in the trunk, too. But not at the same time as the other girl.

Stranger hasn’t been well-served by its director, Mark Brokaw, and his designer, Neil Patel. There’s no sense of sweaty claustrophobia in the plane sequence, no undercurrent of menace. They might as well be sitting in an empty bus terminal. Mr. Brokaw hasn’t kicked Mr. Strathairn’s tranquilized Hush into the necessary state of electric possession. The kidnapped are not chained so easily; torture isn’t bland, nor is Satan. Which leaves the gifted Kyra Sedgwick swimming heroically against the tide.

There will be those who might claim, perhaps, that Craig Lucas’ Stranger is a meaningful existential nightmare about damaged people hiding from reality. It’s meant to be. But symbolic blatancy-mood music and all-isn’t “poetic,” and messy concepts of sin, salvation and psychotics aren’t enlightening. We call it psychobabble, and the hell with it.