Mad-as-Hell Playwright Comes Out Swinging

The moment of the week for me came during John Patrick Shanley’s feverish, deranged and gloriously welcome political satire, Dirty Story, which he also directed at the Harold Clurman Theatre in a feverish, deranged, gloriously welcome way.

Ostensibly about love, literature, apartment-hunting and American involvement in the Israeli-Arab war, Mr. Shanley takes no prisoners on all fronts. Best of all, there’s a swaggering Texan cowboy named Frank, who’s sort of slow and perplexed and very dangerous, and doesn’t understand why no one in the whole wide beautiful world loves him or wants to be like him. Frank-you’ve guessed it!-is Mr. Shanley’s none-too-subtle emblem for George Bush’s U.S.A. Gun-toting Frank’s sidekick is a bartender named Watson, an English dope and stand-in for that little poodle, Tony Blair. Broad political cartoons aren’t meant to be subtle or polite, of course, and in his outraged way, the cultivated Mr. Shanley is saying to us before, no doubt, jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more!!!!”

Here comes the moment . For various reasons, we’ve already heard the rousing theme music from Lawrence of Arabia and Exodus during the show. But this is less exotic, homier and sweeter. It was the spectacle of Mr. Shanley’s Frank and Watson singing “You Light Up My Life” together that sent me over the top. I can’t help smiling now as I recall it-the farcical, painfully funny absurdity of it. At the same time: finally! An American playwright in these dreadful, unacceptable times has at last felt compelled to abandon what he usually does and come out swinging.

In his other life, Mr. Shanley is a smart dramatist of the sex wars, with plays like Psychopathia Sexualis and his screenplay for Moonstruck . His last play, Where’s My Money , was about divorce. I don’t quite know where he stands right now, except that he’s half-mad with what’s going on in the world. He doesn’t list his plays in the Playbill to Dirty Story . Instead of humbly thanking even God for his career, he’s gone on a rant. It’s a first, in my experience. “John resides on Earth, in America,” goes his bio, “a country where the Democrats lost not only the Presidency, the House, and the Senate, but also their integrity, their credibility and their balls. Where Hillary Clinton voted to invade Iraq and Tom DeLay is considered to be a respectable man …. “

More power to him, I say. Theater is no hushed museum-it’s a forum for fierce debate, and Mr. Shanley’s meltdown outcry is in a good, brave cause. He’s brought rough political theater urgently back to a town that produces so many dead revivals it would test the patience of a necrologist. To be sure, Dirty Story isn’t perfect. Its fury is a spontaneous improvisation in agitprop theater born from disgust. The second-act lunacies and metaphors buzz better than his wordier first-act set-up. But that he can have us both laughing and horrified at the world says a lot for him (and nothing for the world).

Dirty Story is another first-rate, well-acted production from the LAByrinth Theater Company, whose Our Lady of 121st Street by Stephen Adly Guirgis I rated last week as the best modern urban drama I’ve seen in a decade. They’re on a roll! So is John Patrick Shanley.

“The streets have become politicized. Everything has political overtones. Whether you like it or not,” he told The Times recently. “There’s no other kind of play I could write right now. I can’t write about how my mother wasn’t nice to me right now.”

Vincent in Brixton : Beyond the Trappings

To go from the impassioned heat of Dirty Story to the safer fare of Vincent in Brixton seemed almost comforting at first. Everything about its elegant staging is richly promising-until, alas, we get to the play.

Richard Eyre’s fine, painterly production, which comes to Lincoln Center on Broadway via the Royal National Theatre, has an exceptionally good cast led by Clare Higgins and Jochum ten Haaf. Its 19th-century kitchen set by Tim Hatley is perfect, and his vintage costumes could scarcely be better. The lighting by Peter Mumford, Dominic Muldowney’s lovely original music, the atmospheric ebb and flow of the evening’s refined, gentle rhythm that is Mr. Eyre’s specialty-everything is exactly right, exactly as it should be.

But the play! Perhaps I was in no mood for the romantic melodrama of Nicholas Wright’s Vincent van Gogh biography. Loosely based on the painter’s early days in Brixton, London, Vincent in Brixton won the Olivier Best Play Award. But the speculative tale of the 20-year-old van Gogh’s slow-dawning love affair with his middle-aged landlady, the widower Mrs. Loyer, struck me as a curiosity piece-at best, a mild footnote to the artist as a young man. Mr. Wright, the engaging psychological dramatist of Mrs. Klein , has given us at the repressed heart of Vincent in Brixton an old-fashioned English potboiler.

The evening’s treacly message is repeated by Vincent as if it contained the secret of the universe: “No woman is old so long as she loves and is loved.” It’s a drab Hallmark homily, isn’t it? “No woman is old so long as she loves and is loved.” It’s the kind of patronizing greeting card someone might send to their lonely, pathetically grateful granny on Valentine’s Day. Anyway, it irritated me, as you can tell.

Mrs. Loyer is depressed enough without Vincent’s simpering love note. But why Mr. Wright chose to write a play about a chronic depressive and a manic nut is only of passing interest when we realize who the nut is. Vincent in Brixton ‘s plot is nevertheless slender. Landlady in widow’s weeds meets naïve, odd young man with red hair yet to become Vincent van Gogh. He’s currently working anonymously for a London art dealer. “You’re like a mirror of my despair,” he announces in the dawning of his desire for the stunned Mrs. Loyer. He also comes up with the clanger, “Art is a lonely road.” Not that it seems a particularly lonely road. Vincent first fell wildly in love with Mrs. Loyer’s daughter, Eugenie, from the moment he clapped eyes on her. But that’s in the past; Eugenie is now committed to a house painter (who wants to be a real painter). Vincent and the resistant Mrs. Loyer fall tentatively, coyly in love. She changes clothes, becomes giggly. He suddenly leaves for two or three years. She goes back to wearing black again. Vincent, now on the verge of becoming a mad artist, briefly returns in a pair of muddy, worn-out boots that just might inspire a painting one day. End on picturesque van Gogh tableau.

Ms. Higgins is remarkable in her unostentatious portrait of middle-aged foolishness edging tentatively toward the folly of love. But she and the excellent, agitated Mr. ten Haaf need more than the play’s repressed romantic agonies and nods to high culture if we’re to become truly involved. Reticence is still an unshakable middle-class tradition, like the timelessly understated dramas of Terence Rattigan. Emotional subtext is all. “Shall I give you a tip?” goes another line from Vincent in Brixton , signaling another message. “Nothing in this house is what it seems.”

The trouble is, more or less everything is exactly what it seems-down to the constant cooking, cleaning, washing and tea-making. Mr. Wright wants to ground his play in authentic social realism. But frankly, I haven’t seen so much tea brewed since an episode of East Enders. The homey household chores represent a nostalgic throwback to the English “kitchen sink” school of drama from the 50′s and 60′s. But in the good old “kitchen sink” days, you could actually smell the play. They used to cook a real meal onstage that either had your mouth watering or had you running for the exit.

They cook a meal in Vincent in Brixton , too. Mrs. Loyer busily bastes and chops and spatters flour on something or other most diligently. But you can’t smell anything. You can’t smell the roast that’s eventually produced with a flourish from the glowing oven and plonked on a platter. The air’s too rarefied. But it looks good.