WILFRED LEACH'S In 3 Zones , now in its world premiere at the Charles Playhouse, is a series of fairy-tale plot fragments saturated in Faust-derived moralizing. The combination is heavy, uneven and often downright tedious, but director Louis Criss breathes some life into the subject matter through experiments, somewhat erratic, in fusion of stage and film action. Though all focus disappears in Zones 1 and 3, largely due to an undisciplined spate of plot elaborations, Criss and his acting troupe salvage Zone 2, "The Occupied Zone," thus granting their audience a few moments of genuine excitement in an otherwise disappointing evening.
"The War Zone" was, to my mind, a miserable failure. In this first portion of the triptych, the Soldier (David Dukes) makes a pact with the devil. He sells not only his soul, but also his body; or, at least, this is implied by the play's personalization of the Devil as homosexual sadist.
Clerance Felder as the Devil then dons angel's robe and halo and takes the "high road" to tempt the Soldier. No longer a sadist, the Devil has become an effeminate masochist.
The "War Zone" offers this forced convergence of "high" and "low" humor, which is too naturalistic to be absurd and too pregnant with symbolism to pose as farce. The "high" humor of the Devil as Angel finds expression in a scene in which an Old Man and an Old Woman solicit his aid in bringing their daughter back to life. The sarcastic expose of superstition is vitiated by a focus on the campy quaintness of the old couple and the vulgarity of their revivified daughter (Alaina Warren). The mixing of styles proves particularly annoying in Felder's early appearances as the Devil in military garb: here the low comic vein is salient. With an absurd German accent, Felder conveys about as strong a sense of evil as anyone can with a halfpasted-on moustache and a shrill delivery.
THROUGH all this, the Soldier remains enigmatic. He seems too simple, too little fraught with psychological conflict to support this elaborate metaphysics. David Dukes plays the part with consistent, low-keyed humor. His southern accent is fine. As the deserter on the make, he is convincing. But where is the potential interest in watching an ordinary man such as this consort with the Devil? The question was never answered for me, nor as far as I can judge for the rest of the audience-who gave only desultory applause to the first act.
Zone 2 relieved my anxieties by veering straight away from the central problem of the play (the disparity between the stature of its hero and the magnitude of his "education"). "The Occupied Zone" was all surface, and the surface was very exciting. This portion of the play, while psychologically the least probing, was artistically the most inventive. The Hero becomes ensnared in the kinky problems of Mrs. Schmidt-Gordon, a twice-widowed owner of a rooming house. Mrs. Schmidt-Gordon murders, by mistake, her daughter Dulcy (Joan Tolentino). She had intended to decapitate her Cinderella-like daughter Gloria, played with winsome agility by June Gable, so that Dulcy could begin recruiting sexual partners. Such was not to be, as the Soldier discovers when he awakens to find Dulcy's headless body next to him in bed. Then begins a melodramatic chase sequence in which Mrs. Schmidt-Gordon, wielding her long bread knife, tries to corner the Soldier and Gloria, now united in flight.
The suspense is heightened through film sequences, sparingly used in the first act. When the players disappear behind the plain wood house-front which constitutes the set, the cameras switch on and show their pursuit continued over rocks and in wooded areas, all this in frenetic, black-and-white photography which evokes the 1920's. To suggest a chase within the house, the director achieves an even more perfect fusion of film and stage action. As the real Soldier and Gloria gape from one open window, the other window shutter springs open, on film, and we see the ominous Mrs. Schmidt-Gordon seeking her prey.
Alice Drummond as Mrs. Schmidt-Gordon was articulate, facially expressive, really perfect in the only well-written acting slot in the whole play. She talks glibly about a distant Golden Age when she was young, the air rich with humidity, and her house a more welcome prison. From her current vantage point, she's more like a burlesqued version of Mother Courage, hoarding her mementos, fearing sexual orgies going on in a locked-off room, generally despairing over "these days when dry mouth must kiss dry mouth." When she sinks in quicksand, her passing is no less sad for its predictability.
THE FINE balance between film and stage action used conjointly in Zone 2 is lost in Zone 3, "The Frontier." Here, the one-time deserter is shown as an old man, a famous general named Chestnut. Propped in an army trunk, he seems likely to die any minute and the comic foils around him-and Army press agent, his wife, his girlguide daughters "One-Eyes," "Two-Eyes" and "Three-Eyes" -play no logical role in this moral crisis. Perhaps, if only for that perverse reason, they are more interesting than General Chestnut himself. The old Man guffaws, clutches his chest (the Devil has made off with his heart) and then make a sentimental journey back in time meeting first the Devil disguised as his old horse Prince, and then himself as a young man. It's a silly series of elaborations which I feel almost embarrassed to report, for the mortal failings of the Soldier were unintriguing enough in full bloom of youth, without sinking to this gratuitous nostalgia over his old age and death. There was a song, I believe, and the whole show winds up with Chestnut back in his trunk, giving his daughter some last-minute advice before shuffling off the mortal coil.
A telling commentary on the whole evening was the audience's uncertainty whether to applaud once Chestnut's body was removed from the stage. The plot threads were that tenuous. A few glimpses of Chestnut as a baby, cub scout and young man were projected on the wall of the house, but these seemed only token gestures after the exciting film work in Zone 2. With greater selective judgment, Criss could have shortened this play by one hour and made far better use of his extremely gifted actors. Where he did venture into experimentation, he had solid backing from John Jacobson's lighting and Brian Kaufman's film sequences. But, I fear, to have done that, Criss would have had to ask Wilfred Leach to write a new play. And I would never ask that.