According to the accepted wisdom in these parts, Florida Stage is just about the best thing going. Like Caldwell Theatre to the south and Palm Beach Dramaworks to the north, it's a big-budget company with high production values and a clientele that smells a little like medicine. Unlike those theaters, its ambitions are as deep as its coffers: Florida Stage is committed to presenting exclusively new or nearly new works, and somehow it has found a huge audience of theatergoers who can dig its mission statement. So far, so good.
The problem with producing new or nearly new work, though, is that it's very difficult to sort the competent mediocrities from the genuinely good plays that come under consideration. A lot of things that look great on the page — like the recent A House With No Walls, According to Goldman, and Roger Hedden's The Count, which opened last month — are well-written, well-meaning plays that, once realized, cannot summon any justification for their own existence. A House With No Walls, which dealt with America's history of racism, had impeccable morals and zero drama. According to Goldman seemed like a private exercise a playwright might use to overcome writer's block. And The Count, which is probably the best piece of writing Florida Stage has gotten its hands on since 2006, is deathly afraid of its own subject matter; a beautiful failure of nerve. What I mean is, Roger Hedden is a pussy.
And such a talented pussy too, which makes the sting all the sharper. The Count is a family drama about a sister flying into Houston for her parents' 55th wedding anniversary. She's staying with her brother, a surly little gay man with a pinched pucker of a face. Sipping gin martinis and waiting for their parents to arrive, they look out at the Enron tower beyond their condo's picture window and trade one-liners smart enough to make you glad you came. You expect good things.
There are other reasons to hope too. Throughout their catching-up, the sister, Jane (Deborah Hazlett), looks so ill at ease that you wonder when she'll say "fuck it" and jump through the glass. You know there's a reason for this, and you're curious. Squash that curiosity while you can. The promise of these early scenes — the promise of pathos and familial intrigue to go along with the copious wit — is a promise that Hedden cannot keep.
By and by, we learn things about the family's shared history. Michael, the brother, doesn't like his sister much. He still resents and judges her youthful foibles and lack of seriousness. This bothers Jane, now in her 40s. When Michael accuses her of "doing phases" (as in a "goth phase" or an "anorexic phase"), Jane is deeply wounded.
She doesn't do phases anymore; she does faces. She's a famous photographer. Though we never see her work, the descriptions we are offered by her parents and brother paint her as an unfunny Diane Arbus, all rue and no rouge. This photography business is another sticking point for Michael. Jane's famous, and he's not, and furthermore, she got her start as a photographer only after appropriating a camera he'd received as a gift. After this appropriation, he was given a compensatory present: Gödel, Escher, Bach, by Douglas Hofstadter. That great book comes up again and again in the play, and Hedden's approach to storytelling, as well as his way of layering themes, recalls the stratagems found in the dialogues of GEB. The interchangeability of faces and phases is a good example. The dual meaning of "The Count" is another.
The Count, who appears in the second act, is a charismatic bullshitter played by Dan Leonard, whose stories of adventures with famous and brilliant people have brought some excitement to Jane's father in his old age. "The Count" is also the countdown to irrelevance and death faced by Jane's parents and everybody else. The bullshitter Count is a delightful person. Dishonest for sure — he claims to have been taught to ride a bicycle by Albert Einstein — but not obviously dangerous. The countdown theme is a struggle for meaning in metaphor and cleverness that never seems to gel.
You can forget this in the moment of performance because the nonsibling characters are so easy to like. The parents, Lester and Connie (Richard Henzel and Lois Markly); Michael's lover, Monty (Michael Marotta); the Count himself — these are gorgeous creations that Hedden, director Louis Tyrell, and the actors should all feel proud of. Indeed, the problem may be that Hedden loved them too well, because he never does the brutal work necessary to plumb their dark sides. Why is Michael so angry at his sister, the Count, and everybody else in the world? Why is Michael and Jane's father so smitten with the dishonest Count? We get explanations but no exploration, and even the explanations seem rushed. Whatever Hedden set out to explore when he began writing this play seems to have scared him so badly that he wanted to defend his characters from it, by omission if necessary. Even Michael, whose anger should be the catalyst for something, seems like a distraction that Hedden wishes would go away.
Maybe that much affection is good, and maybe it's not, but I'll tell you what — it's a shame that this gifted, funny, humane playwright and his able cast have extended their talents to a play that glosses over its own best question. What forces could have caused two children of decent parents to waste away their lives as reactionary combatants in a sibling rivalry? Hedden probably thought that question was too obvious. But in his hurry to paint his cleverly layered portrait, Hedden neglected to replace that obvious question with a better one, or any question at all. The result is a play that risks nothing and carries all the emotional weight of an unusually doleful Hallmark card. Hedden could explain the problem as well as I could, because he clearly knows that the count never stops: not for art, not for reflection, not for anything. In such a world, theater should do more with our time than kill it. It should surprise, reinvigorate; it should momentarily convince us that life is more adventure than tedium, more weird questions than pat answers. This is how the Count enthralls a gullible old man in Hedden's play, and it is what The Count fails to do for anybody else.