Arlington and greater Washington are fortunate to have The American Century Theater, a company that makes it their business to give theater audiences the opportunity to see full productions of plays that theater lovers always wished they’d seen. Right now, it is Lanford Wilson’s "Serenading Louie" that they are bringing back to life. Few serious theater goers have seen this play because it is produced so infrequently.
Wilson is much better known for his more frequently produced plays such as the slightly quirky portrait of losers in a dilapidated hotel in Baltimore that is missing one letter from its florescent sign, "The Hot l Baltimore," or his touching, Pulitzer Prize-winning play for a cast of two, "Talley’s Folly," which Dominion Stage gave such a lovely production of a few years ago.
The obscure reference of the title yields a clue as to the kind of drama this play offers. The "Louie" being "Serenaded" here is the one in the Yale drinking song about the "poor little lambs who have lost our way (Baa! Baa! Baa!)."
In the play, it is two marriages which have gone astray in suburbia, circa 1970. As with most Wilson plays, it is a conversational drama and it is in its language that Wilson demonstrates his strongest skills. Some will find the language beautiful and touching. Those are the ones who listen to dialogue with an ear for the turn of phrase, imagery and momentum. Others will find it frustrating. They are the ones who want the author to get on with it ... "just let me learn what I need to follow the events of the plot." Which one are you? That is what will determine if you like the show or not.
During the first act you find yourself concentrating on who these four people are, what their backgrounds are and what has gone wrong with their marriages. It is clear from the first moment that the first of the two marriages is in trouble, and it certainly doesn’t take long for the state of the second one to become obvious.
As Wilson specified, the shift from one home to the other doesn’t involve changing the sets. Instead, it is clearly "Carl and Mary’s home" or "Gabby and Alex’s home" just by virtue of who is at home in it. It takes a few scene shifts to catch on to this concept, but it has the dual benefit of allowing nearly instantaneous transitions between scenes and emphasizing the playwright’s view of the quality of life in suburbia. (Hint: he’s not too wild about it.)
Deborah Wheatley designed a thoroughly satisfying set to serve as the two homes. It could have benefited from more sound absorbing material under its platform surrounding the sunken living room, for the echoey sound of the footsteps when the cast walks to the doors simply draws attention to the fact that they are on a stage. Andrew Griffin’s lighting also draws a bit too much attention to the fact that the home is in a theater by being so dim that you wonder why the characters don’t turn on some lights in their homes.
Wilson’s male characters are the better developed and, therefore, the more interesting ones in the play. The failures of the marriages are really being examined through their eyes, with more attention to their expectations, desires and needs than those of their wives. We learn more about the men’s worlds than we do about the wives’.
It isn’t altogether surprising, then, that the performances of Theodore M. Snead, as an attorney with political ambitions that make at least the appearance of marital solidarity important, and Hans Dettmar, as a husband who can’t quite figure out what to do with the knowledge of his wife’s infidelity, are the most memorable. Snead is particularly good at getting the most impact not only out of Wilson’s words, but out of the silences between them. Dettmar erupts to great effect, but it takes him a while to build up his head of steam.
Their women (the characters do exist in the play simply as the men’s women) are given some great lines when it serves the structure of the scenes. Vanessa Bradchulis adds layers of meaning to the halting half statements Wilson penned for the unfaithful wife, and Robin Covington is at her best when her character is confounded by her emotionally claustrophobic husband’s reaction to her clinging.
Director Steven Scott Mazzola’s touch in the first act is sure, pacing the scenes to build one on the other as the emotions heat up. He can’t quite keep the momentum going after intermission, however. In part, this is a failure of the play itself. Wilson becomes too talky after intermission and his final plot development presents a challenge that the production doesn’t quite meet, in part because the sounds of off-stage events are too soft and muffled to register with the dramatic impact Wilson obviously intended.
This may not be a perfect production, but it is not a perfect play either. Instead, this is a good production of a good play, and this is probably the only chance you will have to see it for quite a while. The American Century Theater comes through again with a theatrical opportunity to be valued.
Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway and writes about theater for a number of national magazines. He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.