Rivercleek Theatre Company
at the Immediate Theatre Studio
THE INDIAN WANTS THE BRONX
at Stage Left Theatre
Patrick Meyers is one tough playwright. Other writers will let a character face death in relative comfort. The guy can be hanging around a flophouse, a seedy tavern, or a greasy spoon when it comes--some place where at least there's the possibility of ordering a beer or crashing out on a lice-infested cot. But Meyers's people have to climb K2, maybe the tallest mountain in the world. They've got to get marooned on an icy rock ledge at 27,000 feet, suffer avalanches, break a leg, and freeze.
Funny thing is, all their pain and effort doesn't make them any more interesting than they would've been at sea level. Meyers's lofty conceit doesn't open up any new vistas. The writing in K-2 remains pedestrian--not to mention implausible and, sometimes, plain silly--despite the altitude.
This essential dumbness probably didn't matter much a few seasons back, when K-2 opened in New York, its reputedly breathtaking set dominated by an enormous chunk of manmade mountain. If you couldn't endure Meyers's twaddle, you could still surrender yourself to the wood-and-foam grandeur of that mountain. Like any number of bad adventure movies, the New York K-2 got by on fabulous scenery.
But Jim Leaming's set for the new Rivercleek Theatre production of K-2 isn't fabulous. It's nice. Useful. Clever, too, in certain respects. But severely limited in its potential fabulousness by the limited amount of space and money available to Rivercleek.
So the show's saving distraction is gone, and all that's left for director Diane M. Honeyman and her cast to work with is the aforementioned twaddle.
Which is without limit.
K-2 is obvious. In the opening moments of the play we learn that two climbers, Taylor and Harold, have taken a tumble that's left Harold with a broken leg; we're also given to understand that though Harold might be gotten down off the mountain in a sling, there isn't enough rope to make one. There is, however, rope enough for Taylor's descent alone. The setup's almost laughably pat, and nothing that follows mitigates that patness. The outcome's never in question. From the start, we know we're going to spend the next hour or so waiting for Harold to get comfortable with death, and for Taylor to get comfortable with survival.
And that, of course, is what happens. Meyers tries to drum up some pathos by injecting certain ironies into the situation, but those ironies are of the "face on the barroom floor" variety. Dead-meat Harold, for instance, is portrayed as a family man with a loving wife and a bouncing baby boy, while Taylor's a predatory single with a rotten attitude and nothing to lose. That Harold's the one whose actuarial number has come up is supposed to be some sort of deep comment on fate and mortality.
All it is, in fact, is a comment on the implausibility of the whole construct. What's a guy like Harold doing in a place like this, anyway? I mean, never mind the danger: where would a man with a demanding job and a small child find the time--quite literally, the months--he'd need to train for, trek to, and climb an edifice like K2?
The whole play's just basically screwy. Taylor protests that he's merely a hobbyist--but here he is, on the Chinese-Indian border, climbing the only peak in the world nearly as tall and treacherous as Everest. Harold, meanwhile, claims responsibility for both the invention of the neutron bomb and the discovery of the quark. Who are these people?
Honeyman and her actors, Sam Derence and Michael Lubeck, try hard to answer that question. But they can't. And I doubt that anybody can, because Meyers himself never gave it enough hard--or even coherent--thought. Harold and Taylor aren't characters, at heart, but a couple of empty knapsacks into which Meyers stuffed all his best/facile notions about cosmic indifference and personal enlightenment. Lao-tzu he ain't.
So the mountain's a molehill and the script's a load of landfill. What's left? A couple of valiant, competent performances by Derence and Lubeck--featuring some acrobatics by Derence, on a par with Ariel's flights in the recent Goodman Theatre Tempest. Both actors deserve better support than they get from John Kellogg's sound design, which fails to convey a strong sense of the K2 environment. Much of what Derence and Lubeck do can't be understood unless we're vividly aware of the cold, the wind, and the thinness of air at 27,000 feet.
Honeyman does a good job of keeping things lively despite an inherently sedentary situation. I only wish that she, Derence, and Lubeck had given themselves more to work with. They wouldn't need a mountain if only they had a script.
Israel Horovitz's The Indian Wants the Bronx is also about man's struggle against an inhospitable environment. Only the environment in this case is a bad New York City neighborhood late at night. Just off the boat and unable to speak a word of English, a middle-aged Sikh named Gupta has got lost trying to find his son's home in the Bronx. He's waiting for a bus to take him to yet another wrong address when two young toughs join him, initiating the angry, tender, dangerous encounter that forms the action and core of the play.
I harbor a certain nostalgia for Indian. I worked lights for a production that ran at Bob Sickinger's Hull House theater, on Broadway near Belmont, nearly 20 years ago. I can still remember the bluesy way the two toughs in that production sang their song: "I walk the lonely, lonely streets a-callin' out for lovin', but baby you don't give a Christ for nothin'. Not for nothin'. Baby, no one cares. Baby, no one cares."
The new SoHo Stage version has Brad Miller and Patrick DiRenna as the toughs, doing their song 80s hip-hop-style. Which is a good idea. But director Jerry Spivack's failed to follow through on his updating. Hip-hop notwithstanding, his basic approach is late-60s Leonard Bernstein: a view of the toughs as a coupla good, even naive, kids whose crimes are entirely attributable to their rage at an unfeeling world.
This "depraved on accounta we're deprived" stuff won't work any more. Things have gone too far. You can't claim naivete in the era of 11-year-old dope dealers who have to hire somebody to drive their Porsches for them. You can't claim mere lack of feeling in the era of Reaganite social Darwinism, when society as a whole is outright hostile to the needs--to the simple human existence--of poor folk.
No, the times call for something a little sharper, and hip-hop alone won't suffice.
Of course, this show's got more basic problems than a passe social outlook. It's missing certain necessities. Like a bus-stop sign for Gupta (Garrick Paul Axelrod) to stand beside, so we'll know why he tries to hold his ground even after the toughs show up. Or like a decently wrapped turban, so we'll have a sense of Gupta's authenticity. Brad Miller does a nice, nervy, endearing job as the soft tough named Joey; but Patrick DiRenna never generates the aura of menace he absolutely must have as Murph.