Theatre Review: A Blonde Gets on a Train, Another Gets Off a Bus. Trouble Ensues.

Dutchman. By LeRoi Jones. Directed by Mark Clayton Southers. Starring Jonathan Berry and Tami Dixon. Bricolage Theater, 937 Liberty Avenue, Pittsburgh. Through May 12.

Bus Stop. By William Inge. Directed by Gregory Lehane. Philip Chosky Thearer, Purnell Center for the Arts. Carnegie Mellon University. Through May 5.

At times I feel the phrase “embarrassment of riches” applies to Pittsburgh, and especially to Pittsburgh theater. In New York or London or San Francisco you might never even conceive the ambition to see all the plays that are offered, to say nothing of concerts and exhibits. Pittsburgh, though, is manageable in so many ways—as I once realized when I drove from the East End to the North Side through downtown at 1 pm, when office workers were teeming on the streets. Piece of cake.

Getting to all the plays? Not a piece of cake. A Viennese dessert cart, or one of those gut-busting Sunday buffets. My partner and I try to get to the productions of many of the small professional theaters and the college theaters. Put differently, we’re maniacs for theater. It is our great good luck, or burden, that as well as the two major professional companies and several minor ones there are ambitious community theaters, theaters within an hour’s drive of the city, and the universities’ drama departments. Two of the universities, Point Park and Carnegie-Mellon, have conservatory programs that prepare students for professional theater. So all together there are opportunities to see new or new-ish plays, demanding rarities, and even never-before-produced plays.

I think we’ll have seen six plays in two weeks, seven in three. We saw two plays now running almost back to back, and they make an interesting comparison: Bricolage’s Dutchman, by LeRoi Jones, directed by Mark Clayton Southers, and Carnegie-Mellon’s Bus Stop, by William Inge, directed by Gregory Lehane. Both are revivals of mid-twentieth-century plays: Bus Stop dates to 1955, Dutchman to 1964.

Dutchman, essentially a two-character play, is intense, claustrophobic, brief, and still has the power to shock. Bus Stop has eight characters and several meandering story lines. It was a three-act play, traditional at the time, but Lehane has wisely eliminated the intermissions, and his collaborator has cut the script down. Bus Stop was claustrophobic, too, the characters snowbound in a Kansas diner, but Lehane has “opened it up,” moving the diner setting outside a derelict bus with bleached winter grasses and wafflelike clouds above. In a talkback he explained that the team conceived the production as populated by ghosts, types that probably don’t exist any more. (For me and most people my age Bus Stop is also haunted by the ghost of Marilyn Monroe as the singer Cherie—Annie Heise is given a resemblance to the Blonde.)

The characters do indeed seem types (the cowboy, the professor, the no-better-than-she-should be lounge singer) more than characters, as if Inge was performing Kansas for his New York audience. While I watched Bus Stop I almost expected a character to break out into song, and I wonder why it never became a musical. (There is a song, interrupted, late in the play.) Maybe Oklahoma! had pre-empted the center of the country. The actors are winning, even winsome, Jessie Ryan as a naïve high school student especially so. Sometimes Carnegie Mellon student actors, as good as they are, are too young for their roles; Lexi Soha as the more-than-once-around-the-block Grace overcomes that. The technical values, set, costume, and lighting, are excellent.

The characters in Dutchman, too, are types, or even archetypes, and they call each other’s attention to that fact.: a striver, an African American man (or to use the mid-century word, Negro) and an aggressive, sexual, teasing, apple-proffering white woman. It’s summer on a subway car that isn’t air-conditioned. She comes on to him, he resists, then melts a little. Mark Southers not only keeps the claustrophic realistic setting, but also arranges the audience along both sides of the car, looking down on it as if at a bullring, appropriately enough. The acting and direction are superb. Highly recommended.

Bus Stop seems to want to please the audience, too much to seem true. Dutchman, a specimen of the theater of cruelty, wants to shake the audience. And it does.

[A further note: two more claustrophobic plays are currently being performed in the area. The first, an adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terrible, about the dangerous games played by a brother and sister in their Room, in the Helen Wayne Rauh Theater at Carnegie Mellon, defines perverse. What a brilliant and (pardon me) seminal figure Cocteau was! You may think the production, with its contemporary references and paraphernalia and the deafening music drowning out the words, is itself inappropriately, or appropriately, perverse. Directed by Joshua Gelb.

The second play, Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden, at Off the Wall Theater in Washington, PA, concerns a woman who was a political prisoner, tortured by a sadistic doctor. Years later she and her husband live in an isolated house. When a motorist comes to their home after a car breakdown she believes she recognizes his voice as her torturer’s. I have not seen it yet but I have a high regard for the actors. Through May 12.]


Filed under: Arlene Weiner, Prose, Reviews: Performing Arts