CRIMES OF THE HEART
by Beth Henley
Directed by Kathleen Turner
The Roundabout Theatre
at the Laura Pels
Reviewed by David Spencer
As a critic, I feel as if one of my jobs is to assess each project on its own terms-as I like to put it, to report on how well it meets its own assignment. I've generally found this to be a freeing philosophy, because it unshackles me from leading with my personal taste, when such is at odds with the creative intentions; or from being limited to expressing whether or not I happen to like something. Oh, indeed, I express my tastes and likes clearly and often, but if they're irrelevant to an accurate assessment, I'm happy to admit it...most times. But once in a rare while something comes along that defeats even my noblest efforts and I have to admit: I may not be the go-to guy for a review. Coincidentally, two showed up in the same week. Here they are:
The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island (Or The Friends of Dr. Rushower) has been getting some decent press for its whimsy and projections and excellent cast, and certainly those are formidable components, but at base I found this cross between urban folktale and island adventure to be a familiar hodgepodge. Not because its eccentric story and design (both the product of cartoonist Ben Katchor) are like anything else, but because its missacented, wandering libretto (also Katchor) and mild folk-rock-jazz fusion score (Mark Mulcahy) are typical, typical, typical of writers who don't know their craft and so throw everything they have against the wall in a kind of wheeee and freeeee way. It's a generic sound and approach because it's where "anti-establishment" always goes to play, each time believing it's re-inventing the wheel. Such represents a classic downtown sensibility, I guess (fittingly, the production is at the Vineyard Theatre), but as far as I'm concerned, musical theatre iconoclasm only works if you have the tools to honor the icons before you attempt to shatter them. Because that kind of training and form-literacy are what provide perspective and context for variation and experimentation to be meaningful. Philosophically, what I mean is not dissimilar to the notion that you can't satirize a subject without first knowing the subject.
The following will sound facetious, but I'm utterly sincere: It must be nice, once in a while, for a critic or even an audience to appreciate a thing like Slug Bearers-but that luxury comes, I think, from not being so consumed by having a career in musical theatre that you can't allow yourself to check out; or from not having seen so much that this kind of off-the-path indulgence can still seem novel, rather than a retread of "novelties" past. (I listen now to the early-70s album of the first renegade downtown musical I ever saw-the absurdist, avant garde Doctor Selavy's Magic Theatre by Richard Foreman and Stanley Silverman-and realize the only reason it impressed me then was because I'd never been privy to anything like it before. Or maybe it set some kind of precedent or template that was absorbed into the gestalt of all who would follow in its footsteps. I don't know anymore. I only know that in the decades since, I've seen a number of these, and even though their stories and design may be wildly different, their imprimaturs and sensibilities seem remarkably similar and identically naive.)
I remember seeing Beth Henley's breakout, debut play, Crimes of the Heart in 1979 and mostly being indifferent to it. I couldn't bring myself to invest in its tale of three Southern sisters, congregating at the family home, each of whom has made some extreme, and perhaps unwise gesture in the name of love. But it won all kinds of awards, ran long enough to replace most of its cast twice, did nicely as a film too, and kickstarted a noted dramatist's career that remains healthily active unto this day.
So upon returning to it-courtesy of the current Roundabout revival at the Laura Pels Theatre directed, and quite nicely, thank you, by Kathleen Turner-I thought that the maturity of years and wisdom would allow me to more appreciate the genteel, yet melodramatic and bittersweet comedy of spinster Lenny (Jennifer Dundas) (who left her only love because in being infertile she feared rejection), victim Babe (Lily Rabe) (who decided enough abuse was enough and when we meet her has just shot and seriously wounded her husband), and good-time gal Meg (Sarah Paulson) (who-well, does what good-time gals do)...and how they sortakinda resolve their problems...Lenny with the goosing of a busybody neighbor (Jessica Stone); Babe with the help of a young and perhaps a little smitten lawyer (Chandler Williams); and Meg with the help of an old, now married boyfriend (Patch Darragh).
And indeed, yes, I appreciated it more.
With the maturity of years and wisdom.
From that same unmoved distance.
I get the play, I sense what it does right and how, I understand its appeal. I just don't share in the joy of it.
And as my shrink would say: I'm comfortable with that. Nobody can like everything. Not even everything good.
So leave it at this: audiences seem to embrace Crimes of the Heart as much as before, certainly most critics do, and to prove the point, the engagement has been extended several weeks. All I'll add is: It's very much a chick flick for the stage. If a Pulitzer Prize-winning one seems like the kind of thing that'll make you happy...then by God it will...