Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Can't See the 'Forest' for the Trees

The Singing Forest
Written by Craig Lucas
Directed by Mark Wing-Davey
Starring Olympia Dukakis, Mark Blum, Rob Campbell, Louis Cancelmi, Pierre Epstein, Jonathan Groff, Randy Harrison, Deborah Offner, Susan Pourfar

Performances April 10-May 17, 2009

Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street

Groff, Pourfar and Dukakis in The Singing Forest
(photo: Carol Rosegg)
The Singing Forest is the second new Craig Lucas play to premiere in New York this season: like Prayer for My Enemy, his post-9/11 therapy session, The Singing Forest is ambitious in its approach to serious, even grave matters, yet for all that, scarcely has anything of worth or originality to say.

If anything, The Singing Forest is over-ambitious, beginning with its punning title: this forest of memories both sings and singes. Preceding Prayer’s take on Iraq and the War on Terror, Lucas tackles the Holocaust’s impact on Jews and homosexuals. This nearly three-hour, three-act play wades through characters and locales in the 1930s and at the turn of the millennium, but it's essentially a hollow study, as if Lucas was content with paying lip service to his important themes.

We begin in Manhattan in 2000—to avoid 9/11 allusions, obviously—and are introduced to members of the Rieman family: mother and former psychiatrist Loë, a Holocaust survivor living on Staten Island as a volunteer phone-sex operator; her estranged children—gay son Oliver, also a psychiatrist, and daughter Bertha, of no discernable profession—and billionaire grandson, Jules, Bertha's own gay child who, burdened by his family's past, hires a straight young man, Gray, to pose as him to scout shrinks. First, we see Gray with Shar, a weirdly campy doc who lusts for him, and then with Oliver, who's now seeing Shar's boy toy ex, Laszlo. Meanwhile, Gray's girlfriend Beth works at Starbucks alongside Laszlo, which is also—of course—the coffee shop Loë frequents.

Once Lucas has rather cavalierly set up these characters, he returns to Loë's past when, as a young woman in the mid 1930s, she lived in Vienna with her family and became a patient of none other than Sigmund Freud; she also witnessed the Nazis’ hounding, arrest and eventual extermination of her homosexual cousins. Loë's shocking memories intrude on her increasingly fragile psyche as she deals with the return of Oliver, Bertha, Jules, Shar, Laszlo, Gray (a phone-sex client, as is Shar, who speaks to Loë in her other guise as gay phone-sex operator), and Beth. After much soul-searching, Loë, her family and friends hope to forge a tentatively optimistic future.

The Singing Forest is obviously close to Lucas' heart, which is where he seems to have written his play, since there is much that makes little sense, literally or metaphorically, weakening its elaborate structure with too much coincidence. The ubiquitous Starbucks—where Loë meets Bill, a just-released killer who becomes an unlikely ally—is also where Beth and Laszlo work. Psychiatrists Oliver and Shar are among the least believable specimens of that profession seen onstage in awhile: aside from their laughable analyses, their near-psychotic motivations and actions are also suspect.

Loë's newfound phone-sex profession is even more ludicrous, most obviously because she uses a voice box which alters her voice so she sounds not sexy or alluring but like those robotically enhanced inhuman voices you hear in TV interviews from people hiding their identity. Since these lengthy scenes of Loë on the phone with, alternately, Gray and Shar are filled with dime-store psychology, they quickly wear out their welcome.

Loë has apparently been hiding out on Staten Island for years, and although Oliver doesn’t know where she lives, he has her phone number and repeatedly calls her (she nastily hangs up on him). When Laszlo snoops on Oliver and redials the number because he thinks his lover is cheating, he writes it down, and googles her address. Gray, Shar and Beth all do the same thing, which explains how everybody arrives at her house at the same time. The Singing Forest may be the best advertisement yet for Google, but it begs obvious questions: why didn't Oliver know her address before? Have other phone-sex clients found out where Loë lives? Wouldn't Loë have an unlisted or blocked number? And would she use her home phone number for phone sex?

Apparently, Lucas hoped that his serious themes would distract from the paper-thin narrative house of cards he built. When everyone’s on Staten Island looking for someone and the same actors play the family in Nazi-era Vienna—with the elder Loë stalking the stage watching her younger self—Lucas falls back on desperate farcical tropes like people hiding in closets and under sofas, even slamming doors. Even here, there's inconsistency: Loë unlocks and opens the door for everyone, but Beth appears and simply opens the door herself. When Laszlo arrives, however, the door is again locked, apparently so he can start pounding, which reminds Loë of the Nazis at the door before arresting her cousins Simon and Walter.

On it goes for nearly three exhausting hours, and director Mark Wing-Davey is unable to harness the unwieldy material, which lets down the capable cast, led by Olympia Dukakis as the elder Loë. Even Jonathan Groff, one of our most natural young actors, plays Gray with his winning charisma but is lost at sea as Walter.

The Singing Forest ends with the hoariest of platitudes: the characters say "OK" one after the other to signal their new acceptance of life. Lucas has sketched the outlines of a strong, absorbing play if only he focused on its core rather than the periphery.

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