Top of the Volcano, Ma! But Where’s the Lava?

On the face of it, I can think of no better recommendation for

the beautiful, mind-blowing possibilities of theater than this wonderfully

optimistic statement from an unknown British dramatist by the name of Zinnie

Harris. Her play at Manhattan Theatre Club, with the nice title Further Than the Furthest Thing , has

been clobbered by those miseries called critics (and I’m afraid that for once

the miseries are right). But let’s look for a brief, shining moment at Ms.

Harris’ memorable article of faith.

Talking to The Times about the huge imaginative

leap theater can take, she said: “Somehow, just to have a play set in a living

room-what a missed opportunity, what a shame, when you can take the audience to

the top of a volcano.”

Now that woke me up over

breakfast, I can tell you. Although you can find a volcano erupting in a living

room, it’s rare to sense simmering danger in our theater. Safety, reassurance

and nostalgia are the name of the geriatric game on Broadway, while a piece as

challenging as Tony Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul

is treated, at least by some, with the extreme caution of people who are

prepared to travel only to familiar, well-lit places. In proposing a theater of

the imagination-a theater that burns with ideas and difference -the 29-year-old Zinnie Harris stands firmly opposed to

the deadly diet of bourgeois drawing-room drama. I’m with her. I’m with all

those who want to be taken to the top of the volcano.

But does Ms. Harris really

take us there? Only in theory. Act I of Further

Than the Furthest Thing is loosely based on the volcanic eruption on the

remote island of Tristan da Cunha that caused the evacuation of its odd, hybrid

population to the English port city of Southampton in 1961 (where the second

act is set). A British dependency, the island is without electricity or trees;

the islanders-Ms. Harris informs us intriguingly-are made up of seven families

descended from the original seven shipwrecked sailors who started the colony

centuries before.

But here’s the rub. The first

act actually opens with a volcanic eruption. But the rest is basically set in a

living room! It’s a pretty bare room, true-the natives are simple folk-but

those are the same conventional four walls of the same small, deadly bourgeois

drama that Ms. Harris would surely like to smash.

What use the top of a volcano if a soap opera is going on

next-door? Ms. Harris’ overcrowded plot twists, involving gang rape,

infanticide, suicide, death by lottery and the battle over the opening of a

crayfish-canning factory, don’t make an ambitious moral fable. They make a

daytime serial. Throw in a thwarted romance, strange rumblings, a factory

explosion, greedy governments and nuclear testing, hellish modern society

versus the sunshine of unworldly island culture, and we have an awesomely

simple-minded melodrama. Add God-“I think this might be God!” goes the cry of

the island’s pastor as the volcano erupts on cue-and I’m afraid that we lose

all faith.

Further Than the Furthest Thing was first produced at the Royal National Theatre-with some success, I

ought to add. Intended to be a poetic fable, the play is written in verse, an

English tradition as old as T.S. Eliot (or Shakespeare). Eliot’s verse dramas

wished to elevate the traditional drawing-room genre into the higher realms of

the spiritual. So does Furthest Thing .

Ms. Harris’ characters even speak in an island patois. But the outcome is

merely solemn and quaint. “England,” for example, is pronounced H’England , “egg” is h’egg . The h’eggs are bigger on the island than the h’eggs are in

H’England. This is because they’re Penguin h’eggs-pronounced Pinnawin h’eggs -and pinnawin h’eggs are

unlucky. Mill, who’s married to Bill, drops two of them in the first foreboding

act.

“We isn’t needing any more bad luck,” says Bill emphatically.

“Tch,” says Mill, who hasn’t had a Pinnawin h’egg since the day

Bill’s pa died. (He was eating a Pinnawin h’egg at the time.)

The cast, directed by Neil

Pepe with broad brushstrokes, has invented a kind of H’English yokelspeak which

must pass for the real thing. The island syntax sure doesn’t help. But again,

it’s meant to give it all the air of the exotically authentic. “I know you’s

maybe is thinking we is simple living as like this,” says Mill to the visiting

factory owner. “But we’s from the island and we’s is used to it.”

H’alas, we’s is not.

Another opening, another

monologue …. There are more star monologues on Broadway than ever before.

“Monodramas,” if we want to get fancy, are cheap to produce and marginally less

dramatic than Olympic curling. Kevin Bacon’s solo performance in Heather

McDonald’s New Agey spiritual odyssey at the American Airlines Theater, An Almost Holy Picture , is a

sanctimonious case study.

Its surreal-moonscape set by Mark Wendland is meant to take us to

the top of the volcano by evoking nothing less than Samuel Beckett. But the

bleak landscape, with its peculiar pyramid of jars and broken chairs, doesn’t

for a second suggest the play’s cathedral and soaring spires. It’s vaguely

there to suggest spiritual Significance.

Mr. Bacon is Samuel Gentle, who’s waiting for Godot. He’s a

former priest and now a cathedral groundskeeper toiling away in the symbolic

garden of life. I like my fallen priests to be drunks, but let it pass. The

troubled yet gentle Samuel Gentle is the Job of New England, whose most

difficult test comes with the birth of his only child, Ariel. She’s an adorable

little girl who suffers from the incurable disease of lanugo, where silky hair

covers her entire body. “Not 10 minutes passes in my day when I don’t think

about hair,” Mr. Gentle tells us mournfully. His wife left 15 years ago, “and

not 10 minutes passes when I don’t think of her,” he also tells us mournfully.

This is an odyssey that begs

for trouble. As hairy Ariel grows, we learn that she has ambitions to be a

baton-twirler. Then she attends a Cape Cod summer camp for blind children. A

cute little joke follows: Ariel has bought them all sunglasses and is teaching

them Stevie Wonder songs. But more tragedy soon ensues-and an important moral

lesson for the faithless Gentle-when the teenage son of Mr. Martinez, the local

gas-station owner, takes arty photographs of 9-year-old Ariel running free

through the forest. The boy, a wild child with the gift of extra-sensory

perception, is named Angel ….

Dramatist Ms. McDonald, making her Broadway debut after acclaim

in Los Angeles, where An Almost Holy

Picture was voted Best New Play of the Year by the Los Angeles Times , writes in simple sentences and platitudes. (“Every

town should have a Wailing Wall.”) Individual scenes are given saccharine

titles such as “Sighs Too Deep for Words.” The prose is of a consciously

“poetic” order: “The sea is calm. The tide is full. The moon lies fair upon the

straits …. ” A good deal of the rambling piece is written in verse:

 

I come to my garden alone

Grim

Fallow

Windblown.

 

The untilled, windblown Kevin

Bacon, whether carrying a jar containing 3,427 beans-a symbolic bean for every

day of Ariel’s life so far-or solemnly placing nine bottles of symbolic salsa

verde round the edge of the stage for reasons that escaped me, obviously

believes very much in An Almost Holy

Picture . It’s a free country. He’s a confident, personable actor rather

than a dangerously exciting one. His argument with God-“The hell with

you!”-could be a preppy spat with a traffic cop. He isn’t embarrassed, though.

He sincerely doesn’t mind impersonating The

Glass Menagerie with crippled Laura Wingfield. Tennessee Williams’

gentlemen caller is foolishly evoked here as our “long-delayed but always

expected” savior.

An Almost Holy Picture ,

directed by Michael Mayer, is sincerely awful. Sorry.