The Empire Builders
at the Loeb this week-end and next
FOR most of the third act of the Harvard Dramatic Club's most recent offering, a highly gifted actor presents an extended monologue. George Hamlin, whose overdue return as a performer this production marks, delivers lines from a play by Boris Vian. He delivers the lines well, and Leland Moss seems to have directed both his readings and actions with productive care and considerable sensitivity to the text. That text itself is a curious animal, at once original and derivative, vital and turgid, intellectually inspiriting, and deadly dull.
In point of fact, The Empire Builders is in this final act a fine representative sample of the best and the worst contained in the European Absudist tradition which informs it. Hamlin's performance evokes in Vian's dialogue and situation meanings of the grandest sort: the contraction of the future, the falsification of memory, the decay of language, the failure of human potential, and the persistence of human dignity. Yet the movement of the act in which this content is implicit seems to lack internal discipline, to meander where focus should be asserted, to court nonsense and boredom for their own sweet, seductive sakes.
If this evaluation of the finest moments of this production seems essentially noncommittal, it is because the production offers no further evidence upon which to base a judgement. Moss and Hamlin move to a confrontation with the text, a testing of the values of the playscript in terms of the demands of a real stage and a live audience, but sadly, the confrontation never takes place. The quality of the play remains an open question, not to be resolved on the Loeb stage. The production is finally a mixed bag, triumphant in many of its details, but so deeply divided against itself in conception that it can only be judged self-destructive.
For in the third act, Hamlin is not alone on stage. He performs his play by Boris Vian stage right, while another talented performer, James Shuman, works at cross purposes stage-left. Hamlin portrays a character by Vian, and addled, compulsively verbal middle-class householder, who in the course of preceding acts has involuntarily sloughed all life's amenities, from family to furniture, and who, alone at last, must consider himself. Shuman, portraying The Smurtz, is a character from a play by Leland Moss, based, as they say in the movies, on an idea by Boris Vian. While Hamlin agonizes, Shuman methodically constructs an altar to the America of puerile plastics and persuasive packaging, raising a miniature tower of cereal boxes and cleanser cans. The Smurtz Vian wrote was a sort of ambulatory picture of Dorian Grey, a silent and spongy presence who absorbed power from the gratuitous violence continually inflicted on him, an embodiment of the unrecognized depths of violence latent in a comically arch-typical family group. The Smurtz of Mr. Moss's staging is still a physical butt, who in the progress of three acts is whipped, stabbed, clouted and generally knocked about by a group of people who refuse even to recognize his existence. But dressed in a vinyl union suit blazoned with commercial trade-marks (Bufferin, Vat 69, Rise) and bits of Old Glory, he is now something else, something both more and less than Vian's Smurtz.
This Smurtz is specifically a walking directorial comment, carrying a special and limited message: behind these three acts of comic and pathetic folly are the forces of materialism and cultural prostitution. Shuman does his turn admirably. Looking for all the world like an afternoon at the Broadway Super-Market, he graphically mimes both pain and self-absorption. But at the point in the third act when he and Hamlin finally stand face to face, no amount of individual stagecraft can forestall the recognition that they are acting in different plays. Hamlin, for better or whose, is playing a text about an individual's realization that progress is an illusion and a cheat. Shuman is playing an elaborate directorial conceit concerning the corporate bankruptcy of American life. Where the juxtaposition of these characters might create tension, it begets doubt, and where it might suggest final insight, it conjures up only a conceptual mis-match.
This conceptual division is both less obvious and more destructive in the two earlier acts. Perhaps because these acts seem less surely written, and perhaps simply because they contain more event, they do not give the sense of two concrete, if opposed, actions occurring at once. Rather, they appear essentially and wildly confused.
This confusion is not unentertaining. Much is going on, and much of it is extremely funny. The performances, particularly Stephen Kaplan's as the Lone Star vulgarian next door, and Sheila Hart's as a late version of the French stage type of perky maid-servant (with an outlandish Swedish-Down Home accent), are both hilarious and determinedly enigmatic.
Randall Darwall's settings are striking, although they concentrate on evoking the ambiance of American Synthetic, and so serve to further confuse the dramatic issue. Especially notable is his paper-collage house curtain, suggestive of a ransom note assembled from picture magazines by a gigantic idiot.
But the heart of the confusion is Mr. Moss's personal touch. Some of his talent is apparent in a number of details: fine readings, well-pointed jokes, carefully arranged stage groupings. But something too much of his ability has been devoted to an attempt to avoid a confrontation with the text. His interpolations (among them a parody soap opera by distinguished Warholian, Gerard Malanga, and a number of creaky, smutty japes) are as distortive as they are entertaining. His choices in directing characters (especially the daughter of the family, who Mary Moss portrays with special spirit as a flaming youth, in passionate rebellion against adult American materialism and hypocrisy) are well-realized and consistent in themselves, but serve finally to polarize the production and the text.
It is hard to criticize Mr. Moss for his attempt. It may well be that a production truly rooted with Vian's text would only serve to reveal its inadequacy. In any case, the effort to impose a special directorial vision on a play of dubious relevance is as admirable as it is misguided. And this is certainly not the place to question at length whether the horrors of American commercialism can really be satirized by any art work which chooses to borrow the terms of commercialism rather than create terms of its own. Mr. Moss's product is certainly worth a visit, if you have any taste at all for this sort of thing. But it is also hard not to feel some disappointment because we will now probably never know if Boris Vian's Empire Builders is a play good enough to deserve a faithful staging.