Thursday, June 12, 2008

A Dangerous Personality

Photo/Monique Carboni

There's very little tension in Sallie Bingham's A Dangerous Personality, a major dramatic stumbling block that the show never quite manages to get over. However, Martin Platt's clever direction manages to pull off a comedy instead, a fittingly ironic fate for the late Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, whose struggle to establish the Theosophical Society ended with her being debunked as a fraudulent mystic. From the gilded yet frayed Lamasery (richly designed by Bill Clarke) to a sweltering house in the Hindu Quarter of Bombay, characters keep standing up for New Age idealism (religion without the Church) only to ultimately stoop to comedy. Theater's a bit of a trick, anyway, and for what it's worth, the finale proves that Mrs. Bingham has something up her sleeve after all.

The play opens with all the fluttering energy (although not the intent) of farce: Blavatsky takes dictation from her invisible "master," while Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, her crusty roommate (and theosophical partner), helps to smooth things over with the maid, Little Dorritt, in preparation for the evening's guests. Enter the Countess Constance Wachtmeister, a self-proclaimed clairvoyant who is adventurously drawn to the ideas of Isis Unveiled, Blavatsky's book on spiritualism. Soon after, a visit from Thomas Edison, a comic exaggeration who hams his way through what would otherwise be a mash of bland idealism and lofty paeans to to the so-called magic of hard science: her mystic "astral telegram" and his "wizardry" in a laboratory. It's all rather flung together, although this works, for plot is meaningless to a woman like Blavatsky who operates in a world all her own.

Four months later, in Act II, the slow-boiling drama finally starts to show some steam. Still, with all its carefully worded contrivances, the conversation between Blavatsky and Reverend Hiram Bingham has all the appeal of a microwaved meal (again, not always a bad thing). However, things finally, truthfully, heat up four months later (Bingham's taken some liberties with chronological events), with all of Blavatsky's insecurities and Olcott's resentments coming to a head. It's a satisfying finale, given how subtly the actors, Jodie Lynne McClintock and Graeme Malcolm, foreshadow their true feelings, especially McClintock, whose meditative "dictation" and need to preach are signs of a very human duality: the need to escape and the need for attention.

However, it's a bit of a mixed evening, with the unchecked comedy of Nancy Anderson and Sheffield Chastain (Dorritt and Edison) dousing the intimations of romance behind Lisa Bostnar's inviting attitude (as the countess) and preventing the sharp intelligence of the Theosophic idea from being fully expressed as something other than a cheap parlor trick. No, there's nothing dangerous about A Dangerous Personality, but at least it's got some personality.

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