By Lee Blessing
Directed by Max Mayer
Starring Mark Linn-Baker
Second Stage Theatre / 307 West 43rd St. @ 8th Avenue / (212) 246-4422

Reviewed by David Spencer

I’m not a big one for saying one medium is better than another; all have advantages and limitations in equal measure…but the one thing that films will always and forever have over theatre is that they exist for the record. Say a film gets a bum rap from the critics in its time; it’s still in the can to be rediscovered and reappraised by future generations. (Kubrik’s version of "The Shining", for example, isn’t anything close to the masterpiece some people claim it is today, especially compared to the far superior mini-series of three seasons ago…but it’s not the fiasco it seemed to be upon release either. Everyone seems to forget that it originally opened to the public cold, no advance press screenings, on a Friday. This because each of the daily papers has a Friday weekend section that emphasizes the arts and theatre, and by keeping critics away until Friday, the studio forced the reviews to be buried in the much lower profile Saturday editions—tacitly admitting that they had no faith in the film. Which was, indeed, excoriated by the critics.)

But theatre hasn’t that luxury. Oh, to be certain, a script, a piece of material can get another shot at the brass ring, sometimes it’ll even be worthy of it, and sometimes that second shot works out—but the event of that first attempt that’s overlooked…that’s gone for keeps.

Which is why I urge you to dash, madly dash to the new Second Stage to see "Chesapeake" before its unspecified limited run comes to a close. For while it has in no wise been vilified by the press, the reaction has been mixed enough to scare some potential patrons away. Don’t let yourself be among them. See the play, see the performance. Be able to say you were there.

"Chesapeake" manages to be so many cool things at once, I can barely contain my enthusiasm. Listed in order of rational argument:

(1) A first rate play.

For all the praise being heaped on the young Irish author Conor McPherson about his plays in which characters in monologue tell audiences their stories (in essence narrating more than dramatising), Lee Blessing has provided here a far more impressive example of the genre, this one managing to be a narration and a dramatization at the same time. Unlike the McPherson plays, "Chesapeake" is delivered as a monologue for one actor because there’s simply no other way to tell the story; its theatricality is that dependent upon the communion between one actor and his audience.


I can’t tell you all of it. Like any good narrative, "Chesapeake"’s is a ripping good yarn, and to summarize too much of the story is to ruin the impact of its best surprise.

But I can tell you some of it. Our hero, Kerr, is a performance artist—and in telling us his tale, his life becomes a piece of performance art as well. In the tale, he’s a performance art of some note, having been the recipient of an NEA grant. But because his particular project contains nudity—no matter that context renders it utterly benign, arguably even valuable—he becomes the political target for Therm Pooley, a conservative southern candidate for Senate. Who makes his dog, Lucky, not only his mascot, but a symbol of American decency.

The story is about how an outraged Kerr tries to take down Pooley through the manipulation of Lucky…and the result, and aftermath, of the plan…

(2) An important message

Without overtly delivering a message, Blessing’s play is in fact, a very thoughtful rumination about the extremes of Liberal and Conservative, and the all-too-human meeting place between.

But if words like important make you cringe, let’s not forget that "Chesapeake" is also

(3) Laff-riot funny

Unexpectedly touching too, and terribly suspenseful, but among the funnier evenings to hit the theatre in ages. Funny enough to give Dame Edna a run for her money.

(4) One of the Best One Actor Tours de Force—Ever

Holbrook as Twain, Whitmore as Rogers, Windom as Thurber…add to those ranks now and forever Mark Linn-Baker as Kerr. A slight fellow, his brown hair longish and scraggly, in a tan workshirt and denim pants, he hardly at first seems a force of nature, but very early on we understand that Kerr is painfully attuned to the ironies of the world, even his own, and his passion to underscore them, bring them to light, fuels Mr. Linn-Baker to extremes of both high and low comedy. He nails it all here: the slow build, the "reaction shot," superb timing, the double take, the exquisite splutter, the perfectly observed nuance of physical behavior that causes the explosive laugh of recognition, even broader physical comedy, quicksilver transitions—and the most perfect verbal timing imaginable. All seeming to appear spontaeously, with the best controlled manic genius East of Robin Williams.

Hard to know, with a solo show, how much to attribute to the director, since usually the goal is the keep the direction invisible—but credit Max Mayer for being the man on point in a conspicuously powerful evening.

So okay…

If "Chesapeake" is so extraordinary—and it is—why then has it met with such a criticall diverse response (though to be fair, praise for Mr. Linn-Baker has been unanimous)?

Here’s my theory. Can’t prove it. Feel it.

There’s no pretense to the language in "Chesapeake", it’s deceptively effortless, as colloquial as a Stephen King yarn—and speaking of which…

It’s also something of a fantasy. Its narrative isn’t always grounded in earthly regularities…and I think that taxes the ability of some critics to suspend disbelief, or at least to take the piece seriously in a theatrical context, as if something lightheartedly supernatural must only be the purview of escapist cinema and teevee. One can never underestimate the snob factor in matters such as these.

But trust your Uncle David here, "Chesapeake" goes deep and lingers long. That it happens to be a tour de force, a glimpse into the spiritual and joyously funny into the bargain only amplifies its profundity. As audiences who’ve seem it already know, this one’s a play and production worthy of enthusiasm that is, well…dogged…

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