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A Hard Man to Know

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WILD HONEY
Bailiwick Repertory

TOO MUCH LIGHT MAKES THE BABY GO BLIND
Stage Left Theatre

Everybody's crazy about Platonov. Women love him and men respect him. He's celebrated for his wit, his scholarship, and his rigorous honesty. He's feared for his sharp tongue and his lofty standards. He's well-known--at least among the gentry of his provincial Russian town--as a philosopher and a social critic, a wag and a bohemian--"the local Socrates." But loads of fun. When he shows up for a party at the estate of a beautiful young widow named Anna Petrovna, she catches sight of him and says, "Now we shall be all right."

Yeah, everybody's crazy about Platonov. Even the woman friend with whom I saw Wild Honey, the play in which he appears, thought he was pretty gorgeous.

But I dunno. He seemed like a jerk to me. Puerile and adolescent. With this shit-eating little grin he'd put on and dance around in, as a substitute for charm. His conversation was less witty than sarcastic--even bullying, at times, as when he made a point of fawning over a very timid woman for whom his attentions were clearly a form of torture. Or when he seemed expressly to insult his wife by flirting with Anna Petrovna in her presence. I couldn't understand what everybody found so terribly compelling about this ass.

Then it occurred to me that I wasn't supposed to understand it. That Platonov, charming Platonov, is in fact an ass; and that everybody's crazy about him not because he actually possesses any of the virtues they attribute to him, but because he makes himself available for attribution. There are people like that in the world. Our last president, for instance. Reverse scapegoats--or maybe genuine scapegoats: individuals with no inherent talent, onto whom others project their desires.

The petty aristocrats, small-pond social climbers, and would-be wits who populate Wild Honey desperately need someone to make their lives look interesting. They need the illusion of sophistication to mitigate their vulgarity. They need the illusion of intellect to mitigate their mediocrity. They need the illusion of intrigue--and even scandal--to mitigate their boredom. Platonov simply volunteered himself to satisfy those needs.

And was permitted, in return, to maintain a few illusions of his own. A fairly young but rapidly aging schoolmaster, a Luftmensch, living in a tidy sort of squalor with his complacent wife and 11-month-old son, Platonov gets to consider himself a tragic case--a Promethean sensibility, chained to the rock of provincial domesticity.

This symbiosis breaks down, when a long-lost lover turns up, asking Platonov why he hasn't done more with his life and making him the focus of her own, literally escapist, fantasies. Platonov the Human Hologram short-circuits.

At least, that's what I think happens. I can't be sure because this Bailiwick Repertory production offers some disconcertingly ambiguous signals. What I'm choosing to take here as a matter of design may in fact be a failure of same. What I'm interpreting as a novel view of Platonov may actually be an inability to make something more conventional of him. Wild Honey is British playwright Michael Frayn's rewrite of a very early, very long, and comparatively awkward script by Anton Chekhov, a rough draft of which was exhumed from a safe-deposit box in Moscow 16 years after Chekhov's death. Both Chekhov's text and Frayn's revision concede Platonov some genuine charisma. He's not a complete straw man, and it's possible to see his story as a sort of tragedy of underachievement.

This show negates that possibility. David Zak's direction, especially in the first scene, appears to emphasize Platonov's oafishness and cruelty. His flirtation with Anna Petrovna is a flat-footed thing, so obvious that his wife practically has to stop and wipe it off her face before she can pretend to ignore it.

But then there's a flat-footedness about practically everything here. Jan Lucas is an utterly wooden and sexless Anna Petrovna. David Nava overdoes the blustery old soldier bit as Platonov's father-in-law, his mouth perpetually set in an indulgent frown. Fred A. Wellisch has the peculiar aura of a weasel doing stand-up comedy as the local doctor. And Liane LeMaster acts like a character out of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown as timid, weepy Marya.

The question, then, is whether the Platonov-as-jerk theme is part of Zak's strategy, or whether it's the unintended consequence of some coarse acting and heavy-handed choices. The answer is--I'm not sure. The early scenes are certainly bad enough to suggest a lack of intention. But the last half achieves a nice flow. And then, too, like I said, my companion thought Platonov was gorgeous. So go figure. Maybe he's just not my type.

If everybody in Wild Honey's supposed to be crazy about Platonov, everybody in Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind is just supposed to be crazy. A company of eight performers takes over Stage Left Theatre late at night, to perform 30 plays in 60 minutes. The plays are sloppy, noisy, ludicrous, silly, too silly, serious, too serious, satirical, loud, stupid, smart, and quick. They're also supposed to be "Neo-futurist"--a reference to the Italian-born avant-garde movement that glorified machinery, speed, freedom, war, and slapping the face of public taste. Whether they are that is debatable--and also less than desirable, given the first Futurists' affinity for fascism. Better to think of them as energist. They're very energetic. And occasionally able to shed some baby-blinding light: one quick redo of King Lear, with the old monarch stripping off bits of clothing and handing them as gifts to anyone who answers correctly when he asks "Do you love me," was absolutely brilliant--both as summary and as psychology. Of course, you won't be seeing that one since the program changes every week.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.

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