Long Wharf Theatre, New Haven
The plays of Craig Lucas have a unique style, complete with provocative characters and wildly improbable situations. The Lucas world is a surreal world, yet very contemporary in its feeling. Tragedy, comedy, whimsy, farce all feed into the mix. This has worked beautifully in the past, with “Reckless” and “Prelude to a Kiss” and “The Dying Gaul,” for example. One happily makes the magical journey with Lucas, finding a different way to explore truths.
But this time around, in his current show at Long Wharf, the surreal comes off as dizzying, chaotic, and thoroughly unworkable!
Not that Lucas doesn’t have a moving story with which to play. Or at least the nugget of a story. Flashing back to the 1930s, we meet Loe, a Viennese girl (of Jewish descent) in treatment with Sigmund Freud. She manages to survive the Holocaust by submitting to degradation, but cannot save her own family (her father and her gay brother). How this history effects Loe, as well as her children and grandchild, is the crux of the tale. But lacking focus, this drama does not have the emotional impact of so many others of the genre.
In this scattershot play Lucas brings in a battery of characters which have little to do with the key personalities. There are gay therapists, gay and straight patients, actors who impersonate others, and on and on, all playing their little games—and muddying the water. One is so busy keeping one’s head above water and sorting out the characters that it is impossible to feel empathy or relate to their respective fates.
Morevover, Lucas plays fast and loose with time and place, giving the viewer little opportunity to make the switches from 1933 to 2000 to 1945—not to mention New York, Vienna and Paris. And, to add to the confusion, director Bartlett Sher has his 11 players take on 18 different roles. Putting everything in its proper slot becomes a full-time occupation. Not that this three-and-a-half-hour show doesn’t give one time to ponder and sort!
Yet “Singing Forest” has its saving graces. Kristin Flanders, who plays both the young Loe and a contemporary girl, is a stand-out, never faltering in either role. One waits for her moments on stage. And Robin Bartlett as the older Loe is a fine calm center of the storm, holding it all together. Ben Hammer is also most effective as Sigmund Freud (and another character), creating the play’s most chilling moment with Loe. In that scene, he assures her that Austria will never fall prey to Hitler, that France and her allies would never let it happen. Nor would the League of Nations ever permit the legalized persecution of the Jews.
One is caught up in a veritable jungle in this “Singing Forest.” Judicious pruning of characters and subplots is certainly in order and might indeed turn this tangled vegetation into a garden!
-- Irene Backalenick
Jan. 12, 2005