Suicide, abortion, death by torture, and plagiarism of an obscure British novelist are an awful lot to cram into a single play. In fact just one of these topics would be a challenge for the best of playwrights. Shakespeare's potboiler Titus Andronicus, for example, contains rape, mutilation, and family squabbling, but it is hardly the work for which the Bard is best remembered. And in any case, Shakespeare was clearly trying for box-office success. Nothing packs 'em in like decapitation, today or in the 16th Century.
Given the current state of theater, I would guess that Peter Sagal, whose play What to Say is getting its world premiere at the Florida Stage, must have another motivation. People do not buy theater tickets just because there's bloodletting on the bill. (It's cheaper at the movies, for one thing.) At any rate Sagal has dared to combine these testy subjects, then really go over the top by throwing poststructuralism into the mix. That's right, folks: Along with every other melodramatic plot development mentioned above, Sagal tosses in those pesky literary theorists Lacan and Derrida, as though by mentioning their names and alluding to their theories, he could give his play a dash of much-needed profundity.
And I haven't even mentioned the whore with the heart of gold. That would be Mary -- if that's her real name. What to Say begins with the meeting of Bernard, a disgruntled college professor, and this Mary, a woman standing on the street corner, both of whom take refuge in a doorway during a rainstorm. Mary's profession isn't directly identified, but she agrees to let Bernard buy her coffee then follow her home and pay her for an afternoon of sex. But Mary is not your ordinary call girl. She's also an aspiring writer. She seduces Bernard by talking to him about her writing, her long hours in her study, and her dreams for recognition and fame.
The play is set in an unnamed Northeastern university town. (References to the swan boats in the Public Garden would suggest Boston, although slides flashed on scrims upstage show photographs by Albert Renger-Patsch, most depicting European street scenes and interiors). But Bernard insists he has never met a real author. What's more, he seems oblivious to how odd that statement sounds coming from an English professor in the college-laden, writer-in-residence-infested Northeast. He's drawn to Mary, he says, because he teaches English literature but has lost the connection between people who create literature and his students, to whom he must explain its relevance.
Bernard's sense of dislocation is perhaps rooted in Sagal's desire to explore a real emotional state, but because the playwright hasn't achieved the most basic kind of authenticity in drawing up his characters, it's impossible to navigate Bernard's emotional path. Or to care about it. (As a dramatic cliche Mary doesn't even merit her own story arc.) How is it possible, I asked myself as Bernard introduced himself to Mary, for an English professor anywhere in the United States, much less the Northeast, not ever to have met a writer? Why, there's hardly a college in New England that isn't offering a creative writing seminar these days.
Sagal, a 1987 Harvard graduate, surely must have noticed that in his college town, the bistro waiters are poets, the mail carriers are freelance journalists, the guy who collects the fare on the MBTA is obsessed with completing the fifth draft of his novel. Indeed, in the half-mile radius around those swan boats -- which Bernard takes Mary to visit as their affair heats up -- you can't spit without hitting a writer. Since Bernard isn't throwing Mary a line, I have to conclude that he's just not a credible dramatic invention.
Nor is Mary, of course, but she's supposed to be a cipher, a woman who seems to be tolerating Bernard because he's paying her rent or may be using him to win a prestigious writing fellowship. At any rate she's slightly more palatable than Bernard, partly because Sagal doesn't give her very much to do. Actress Susan Gay does wonders with this role, however, pulling a performance practically out of thin air. Is Bernard so dumb he actually reads love and affection into Mary's behavior? Sagal seems to be suggesting that we don't always know what we're falling in love with, but Gay's performance lets us believe that Bernard would find Mary alluring even as the dialogue she spouts is inane. (A third character in the play makes an appearance late in the second act. Called "The Man," he's played by the captivating Anthony Hubert.)
It's not clear what we're supposed to think of Bernard. He doesn't seem to be able to ask Mary anything but the most generic questions about her writing. He's patronizing and lacking in imagination. (I'm not sure if Sagal is parodying academic jargon with Bernard's dialogue or if the playwright has no idea how such a character would actually speak.) As played by Robert Elliott, he's Fred Flintstone in a Brooks Brothers shirt, a guy who seems to be tripping on his own eagerness to believe that Mary is anything but a con. Without this actor the Florida Stage production, directed by producing director Louis Tyrrell, would fall on its face even faster than it does. (Tyrrell, who brought Sagal's Denial to Florida Stage in 1997, apparently sees more potential in the playwright than I do.)
For her part Mary is tightlipped about her past. Not until Bernard insists on knowing her history do the stories about suicide (her mother's), abortion (her own), and death by torture (her last lover) come out, by which time, even if these weren't preposterously melodramatic details, Bernard and Mary's universe has ceased to hold any interest. It's obvious by this point that Mary is not telling the truth about some aspects of her life. Anyone still paying attention halfway through will learn about the example of plagiarism that encircles one of these two characters.
That leaves only the poststructuralists. Interestingly, the only part of What to Say with the smallest bit of life in it is an entr'acte in which we leave Mary's apartment, the setting for most of the play, and visit Bernard's lecture hall. Set just after Bernard has left his wife only to be abandoned by Mary, the scene is a monologue, staged as though we are Bernard's students. Both Bernard's workaday pitifulness (can he really care about the academic balderdash he's spouting?) and his newfound heartbreak come pouring through in this scene. Sagal may not be able to make any compelling connection between the theorists on Bernard's syllabus and the experience that Bernard has just gone through, but his writing is sharper here, even interesting.
As for Elliott, he gives a spellbinding performance, weaving shades of irony and bitterness into Bernard that until this point the character didn't seem to possess. Here's hoping another six years don't go by before the actor appears at Florida Stage again. As for Sagal, who is also the host of Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me, a quiz show on National Public Radio, here's hoping he doesn't show up again until he does have something to say.
What to Say.
Written by Peter Sagal. Directed by Louis Tyrrell. Starring Robert Elliott, Susan Gay, and Anthony Hubert. Through June 13. Florida Stage, Plaza Del Mar, 262 S. Ocean Blvd., Manalapan, 561-585-3404 or 800-514-3837.
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