Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Lascivious Something

Photo/Carol Rosegg

For a playwright as whimsically creative and daring as Sheila Callaghan, it was only a matter of time before she attempted to literally stage the death of a dream. Wisely, she has once again paired with the visually deft director Daniella Topol (Dead City and the eventual Water), and together they have mounted a poetically stunning, emotionally satisfying, and deeply physical play, Lascivious Something. That title nails the show's slippery specificity: Callaghan's plays easily bounce between reality and dreams, either in fantastical stage directions (Crawl, Fade to White) or in abrupt tonal shifts (That Pretty Pretty, or The Rape Play), and yet they always remain grounded in an intense need. And, like the legendary wine that grows from the blood of this Grecian isle's past and stays bottled for decades, it is her richest, most powerful play yet.

Lascivious Something builds slowly--and with heavy doses of comedy--through its first act, beginning with the arrival of an American, Liza (a terrific Dana Eskelson), at a remote yet tourist-friendly vineyard in Greece. She seems like no match for the owner, Daphne (a radiant Elisabeth Waterston), especially under her steely, commanding glare, until they exchange names and a sliver of a crack appears in Daphne's mask of pleasantries. Daphne recognizes this "self-absorbed, raging lunatic" as the woman who once enchanted her husband, August (a swarthy, magnificently troubled Rob Campbell), and though the man's been content to till and experiment on the rich, wine-soaked soil, she is Greek enough to fear the old passions--the legends--that she knows lurk beneath the surface.

Over the course of the next two hours, Callaghan flirts with the will-he/won't-he tension between the three, all the while enchanting the audience with the coupling of romantic language and bullish frankness ("chewing and screwing in the dark because the sparks turned us on"). And it is through this divide that she manages to deliver on the deeper promise of the play--the smallest death of a dream. (Couple that with the image of August and his "million minor cuts.") Only one of these women can be satisfied; for the other, well, "things often burst." As staged by Topol, these deaths are the abrupt bursts of light bulbs, and after seeing a character speak honestly--often with the sorts of exaggerated passions that befit the sort of legends of people who would launch a thousand ships to Troy--they shatter and extinguish all that has just occurred, resetting--jarringly so--to an earlier moment, at which point things play out in the opposite direction, only with a depth charge of raging repression still echoing in everyone's subconscious. (It's a bit like David Ives's "Sure Thing," only with menace. One of the repeating motifs from the characters is the following exchange: "Are you alright?" "No." "Will you be?" "No.")

These small acts of cowardice, in which characters run from their own desires, is all the more important given the history shared between August and Liza (both considerably older than Daphne): they were college activists, fighting the system, and Liza has come to Greece to retrieve the "mountain" of a man she remembers from the days and weeks of shower-less, car-soaked sex. These two are the hope of 1980s America: they can either share those luminescent, wintergreen sparks of romance again, rising up to fight Ronald Reagan and the disaster they know he will bring (Callaghan foreshadows it, too), or they can sit back, rich as fatted calves, drinking wine and enjoying the beautiful sunrises. Using this artful device, even inaction fuels action, and though many of the scenes don't actually occur, they remain present, hopeful, alive, and crackling under the audience's skin.

These legends don't all work--a tale about Zeus is a little too direct (the fact that it's prerecorded seems to emphasize its awkwardness) and a fourth wheel, Boy (Ronete Levenson), is never entirely justified, even as a representation of the reckless bravery of youth that August has lost. Lascivious Something, however, inches closer and closer to its powerful climax, even on the backs of these half-truths. Several scenes are absolutely electric, from the whispered "Kiss me kiss me kiss me" of the Act I finale to Liza's own legend--the truth of why she's come to this island. (Levenson is outstanding in this bit, nailing Callaghan's clever use of stream-of-consciousness.) There are moments so charged with feeling--watch the way these actors tackle one another with kisses and pin each other to the ground with nothing more than a stare--that it's as if our breath has been stolen by the dazzling performance just as surely as Daphne, clad in a twinkling designer dress, steals her husband's breath (or, in another translation, his soul).

This show is Lascivious Something indeed--something special, something intimate, something (sadly) true.