If the first two plays in the Theatre Company of Boston's Festival of New American Plays are representative, playwrights in this country get most of their inspiration from television and Samuel Beckett.
The first show, The Service for Joseph Axminister, written by George Dennison, is a bland serving of existentialism dished out the self-conscious way the man who created the TV Batman would have done it. Alas, despite its mellow content, it will make you gag.
Axminister is one of those plays within a play that so intrigue and confound modern authors. In this case there is even an audience within the audience--two raspy-voiced men who sit-in front-row seats and occasionally talk with the actors on stage.
A mistress of ceremonies, played by Blyth Danner, announces that three hobos will re-enact the scene in which they discovered and buried the body of Joseph Axminster, another vagabond, so that his two friends in the audience will know what became of him. She also announces that the back of the stage--bare except for a crate that becomes Axminster's coffin and some stools--is the municipal garbage dump and that off to the right is a jail. Her best acting is done later in the show when she play's Axminster's dead body.
Staging a play within a play is a good way to get at the serious question of reality and illusion--provided the playwright is skillful. Dennison isn't. Instead of treating the device seriously or comically--as in Batman when a BLAM sign is flashed--he tries to do both at once and winds up with something that is laughable. There is, for example, an actor who "portrays" a train and at least four times walks across the stage carrying a framework that is suggestive of a train. Not to subtle, eh?
There were some nice touches. Once, the two men in the audience get so excited that they jump up and begin cheering with the actors on stage; another time a wind machine and dimmed lights make the actors forget that they are only pretending, and they act as though they were in the middle of a real storm.
Dennison might have been able to salvage the play with incisive dialogue or characterization. Instead he lets the hobos--philosophers, the mistress of ceremonies calls them--mumble some chit-chat about death and human woe. Sometimes they paraphrase the Bible ("Man is dust--that's the main thing"), and sometimes, like one of Beckett's characters, they talk of how it would be better not to have been born.
A Rat's Mass by Adrienne Kennedy has a dramatic intensity that Axminster lacks. It is an allegory--a la Theatre of the Absurd--about the corrupting influence of Catholicism, represented by a girl dressed in white, and the evil in modern life, symbolized by a procession of Nazis who troop back and forth behind the set. What saves it from the woodenness of most allegories is the performance of James Spruill as Brother Rat.
Spruill slithers across the stage, rubbing the boards with his arms and legs; when he roars his whole body heaves as though he was vomiting up sound. He is the man that the white dressed girl, Rosemary, corrupts; she coaxes him into committing incest with his sister.
Director David Wheeler creates the proper atmosphere of mysticism and terror with eerie noises, a dim stage, and a gilded idol. At times he over- does it--as when he lets the machinegun sounds that close the play and signal the death of Brother and Sister Rat go on and on. For the most part, though, he is in control.
What is said in these plays has been said before and better. Both of them are too faddish to be anything more than theatrical hula-hoops. But A Rat's Massat least will fascinate you while it spins.