Tuesday, May 13, 2008

There Are No Words

"Substitution" presented by The Playwrights Realm at the Soho Playhouse, May 7, 2008

(photo credit: T. Charles Erickson)

In the title of this post, Calvin's Mom (Jan Maxwell) sums up how most people respond to a parent who has just lost a child. Calvin was on a boat carrying his high school ethics class on a field trip which exploded, killing every one on board. The identification of Calvin's body was by deduction, since every one else was accounted for, except one faceless body. She is joined by Paul (Kieran Campion), a substitute teacher who volunteered to help her clean up the flowers and toys left as tributes to the dead students. She is immediately put off by his rambling, nervous, well-meaning and endless patter - all the words she doesn't want to hear anymore. He seems to know a lot about Calvin which she finds disconcerting.

Anton Dudley, who wrote this play with Ms. Maxwell in mind has done beautifully by her. He hasn't done so well by the rest of the cast, however. The monologues which Ms. Maxwell delivers are completely natural in their expressions of pain, anger and resentment. Had he left well enough alone, it could have been an evening of significant catharsis about a single mother dealing with the death of her only child. His initial focus on words and language and their role in the grieving process was provocative. Instead, Mr. Dudley also pursues a misguided subplot about beauty. Paul turns out to be not only Calvin's substitute teacher, but also a substitute father, a beautiful young man who has fallen in love with Calvin's mother before he's even met her. He flings guilt onto Calvin's' Mom relentlessly, thinking it will bring them together so they can share their grief. He pushes too far and too hard. "We have Calvin in common." he says. She recoils, stung, and rejects Paul completely. Even when Paul packs up Calvin's artwork from the classroom for her, she destroys the work in an effort to push Paul away.

Mr. Dudley also intersperses a couple of scenes between two of Calvin's classmates Dax (Brandon Espinoza) and Jule (Shana Dowdeswell) on the bus for the fateful field trip. I suppose these were meant to give a perspective on Calvin, "Think of the least memorable person in our class." she says. "Calvin" he replies, beginning a conversation on how one can identify the least memorable, since that requires remembering them at all. It's a clunky plot convention. A final monologue from Dax as he sees his friends floating in the water above him creates some interesting imagery, but the language is no longer Dax's and it undercuts the effectiveness.

Mr. Campion works hard to make his contradictory role functional. His rapid-fire delivery convey the nervous insecurity of a lonely man reaching out. His movie star looks, however, undercut the author's proposition that Paul dates very little or has very few friends. I think this is another flaw in the writing which keeps credibility at bay, giving Paul the physical beauty that Calvin's Mom no longer reflects on the outside.

Ms. Maxwell is mesmerizing in her monologues. Her pain is palpable and there is not a moment or word wasted in her direct address passages. Mr. Dudley pushes her to the point of shrewish as she rejects Paul over and over again, which belies the love she feels for her lost son.

Katherine Kovner seems to have made every attempt to work through the awkward transitions, but without some rewrites, it's a bumpy ride. Fortunately, much of it smoothed by Ms. Maxwell.

I believe this is the inaugural production for The Playwrights Realm. They have made a noble effort and I look forward to seeing what's next.

No comments: