Corrections or additions?

This article by Jack Florek was prepared for the April 3, 2002

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Drama Review: `Humpty Dumpty’

Humpty Dumpty" is a nursery rhyme about a doomed

egg. With any luck, Eric Bogosian will not be quite so unlucky.

After 20 years of solo performances that bridged the gap between

theater

and cutting-edge stand-up comedy with such works as "Talk

Radio"

and "Drinking in America," Eric Bogosian says he has given

up the one-man rants and settled into the quiet life of a playwright

and novelist. But if his initial efforts are any indication of where

the rest of his career is heading, his fans may be hoping for a change

of heart.

Last year, Bogosian’s first novel, "Mall," a scattershot look

at suburban teens and their perpetual favorite hangout, was published

to a critical thrashing. (Just released in trade paperback, Bogosian

will give a book signing at Borders Books, in Nassau Park, on

Wednesday,

April 10, at 8 p.m.)

Now his commissioned "Humpty Dumpty" is having its world

premiere

at McCarter Theater, through April 14, looking more like a

work-in-progress

than a finished piece. Bogosian, a charismatic performer, does not

appear, so the play’s paper-thin characters and cliche-laced dialogue

(one character actually says, "It’s deja vu all over again")

are all the more apparent. The good news is that its

two-and-a-half-hour

running time leaves lots of opportunities for further editing.

The play is divided into two very distinct parts. The first act is

light and breezy, with dialogue that would not be out of place on

television’s ever-popular "Friends."

Celebrated short story writer Max (Bruce Norris) and his wife Nicole

(Kathryn Meisle), a successful editor for a major New York City

publishing

house, are staying at a lavish, $4,500 a week vacation lodge in the

mountains of upstate New York. They are joined by Max’s college buddy,

Troy (Patrick Fabian), a screenwriter, and his dippy girlfriend, Spoon

(Reiko Aylesworth). In between slavishly answering their cell phones,

the two couples exchange self-conscious banter about 1960’s naivete,

People magazine, and the "guilt inducing third-world

personnel"

experienced at Caribbean resorts.

When Nat (Michael Laurence), a rustic mountain man and lodge

caretaker,

shows up to fix the stove, he is initially dismissed as a hick by

the men and an object for flirty amusement by the women. But when

the power mysteriously goes off, the phones rendered inoperable, and

contact with the outside world becomes impossible, Nat’s survivalist

skills are welcomed by the women and resented by the men.

The play’s second act is more like the old late-night "Twilight

Zone." For the most part, the comedy is shelved for a lot of

"what’s-going-to-become-of-us"

type angst. Days go by, the power remains out, and still no word about

the cause. Petty jealousies begin to divide the group. The group

dreams

of returning to the city, their offices, and their old lives, but

lack of gasoline, fear of lawlessness, and the relative safety of

the rural lodge keeps them rooted. Fearing that they will never be

able to return to their old lives, panic sets in and familiar upbeat

personalities melt away.

Although the bulk of the play was written before

September

11, it is filled with inescapable allusions to just that sort

cataclysmic

disaster and our worst fears of its aftermath. Nicole notices that

there are no airplanes flying overhead. Spoon and Troy discuss

biological

warfare. Starving dogs lie in wait outside the lodge, howling. Sounds

of random gunfire fill the air.

Director Jo Bonney (who is married to Bogosian) keeps things moving,

seamlessly welding the play’s first act comic tones with its second

act creepiness. Likewise, the cast is does a suitable job. Patrick

Fabian and Kathryn Meisle are particularly personable and supply most

of the play’s dramatic energy. Reiko Aylesworth is fine when she’s

cooing and giggling, but seems a bit stumped when the world starts

coming to an end.

But the bottom line is that the characters are so weakly written that

the actors are often left hanging. Bruce Norris’ character, Max,

spends

the entire second act harping on the same "everything is going

to be all right" note. Michael Laurence as Nat looks like an actor

waiting for the play to come to him. He smiles, he shrugs, and he

walks with a big stride, but beyond that he looks lost.

Robert Brill’s set design is in many ways the star of the show.

Dominated

by woodsy browns, its sheer rustic massiveness elicited gasps from

the audience. Elegant touches, like curling metal staircases and a

chandelier built from a mass of animal horns hanging from the ceiling,

provide the necessary extravagance to support characterizations not

built into the script.

Some people consider Eric Bogosian to be one of the major theatrical

voices of the last two decades. It may help to remember that

everything

an artist does can’t be great. Heck, even Picasso did some crummy

paintings and Bob Dylan released some pretty poor albums a while back.

So maybe it’s best not to come down too hard on Bogosian. He’s liable

to surprise us next time.

— Jack Florek

Humpty Dumpty, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place,

Princeton, 609-258-2787. $39 & $43. Performances to April 14.


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