POOR MISS Lonelyhearts. It's not the most enchanting occupation, this playing Dear Abby to a world of grotesques, trying to find an answer for the frustrated and despairing who package their pain in ungrammatical letters whining for relief. Reporters are supposed to maintain a professional distance from their subject, but the cries of these letter-writers, loud and agonizing, force Miss Lonelyhearts to become immersed in his. Originally a means of advancing his career and increasing his paper's circulation, the column he writes serves finally as a conduit for personal tragedy; awakened to a vain search for an antidote to life's cruelty. Nathaniel West's tormented protagonist inevitably discovers that he too is "a victim of the joke, not its perpetrator."
West's novella takes the form of a starkly concentrated interior monologue by the Miss Lonelyhearts figure; other characters are present mostly insofar as they impinge on the protagonist's morbid self-consciousness. In dramatizing Miss Lonelyhearts, Howard Teichmann necessarily invented much new dialogue, some of which functions to round out the motivations of the subordinate characters.
Unfortunately, much of this dialogue is insipid and cliched. Worse, Teichmann's attempts at character development partially distort West's intent. In the stage version, for example, the relationship between Miss Lonelyhearts and his sweetheart Betty--which assumes a far more central role than in the novel--is transformed into a typical 50s romance, while Shrike, Miss Lonelyhearts' misanthropic boss, becomes too intrusively a father figure. Worst of all are Teichmann's omissions. Absent from his script are many of West's most pungent passages; missing too are several key incidents which suggest that Miss Lonelyhearts' real impulse in the face of suffering is to destroy the sufferer--a notion which West insists on but which comes across only indirectly in the play.
Happily, the Quincy House Theatricals' version of Miss Lonelyhearts is really an adaptation of an adaptation. Director Stephen Kolzak has meticulously revamped the Teichmann script, pruning away some of its most inane lines and inserting wherever possible more vivid segments from the novel. While he succeeds in eliminating glaring sexism and cliched passages like
I've got to get out of there, Betty! That column can do it for me. It can be the beginning of everything for us!
Kolzak is still stuck with the basic structure of Teichmann's uninspired play. What unmires this production--even more than Kolzak's revisions--is a series of fine performances by a generally top-notch cast.
The one glaring example is the casting of Robert Beusman in the title role. Miss Lonelyhearts is not supposed to be a particularly likable character. In the novel, he is unpleasant because of his extreme morbidity; in this production, because of his insipidity. He must emerge, however, as something more than self-parody. Unless he embraces his Christian mission with evident conviction, the painful irony of his demise is undercut, and the play belongs totally to the ever-cynical Shrike.
BEUSMAN, UNFORTUNATELY, plays Miss Lonelyhearts as a goofy adolescent type who broadcasts his weirdness by making grotesque faces. Unable to convey the fervor of Miss Lonelyhearts' hysterical religiosity, he supplements his limited emotional range with a series of stock expressions and mannerisms--employing a conscious hesitation in his voice, staring stupidly into space, shrugging his shoulders, bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet. Sporting a perennial grimace, Beusman is far better at looking disgusted--as in his first run-in with the man-starved Mrs. Doyle--than at appearing lovable or humane; as a result, his scenes with Betty--which are badly written to begin with--are the least effective in the play.
A weak Miss Lonelyhearts tilts the balance of the play in Shrike's favor, and Lorenzo Mariani as the sharp-talking features editor makes the most of it. Poor Miss Lonelyhearts never really stands a chance. Mariani's magnificent presence and resonant voice dominate the stage, as he enunciates West's vision in a way that mixes cynicism with sense. Especially fine is Mariani's handling of Shrike's monologue, in which he relentlessly demonstrates to a bed-ridden Miss Lonelyhearts the futility of traditional means of escape.
Complementing Mariani's able performance is a strong supporting cast. Patrick O'Neill's Doyle is a pitiful yet somewhat ominous figure, and Rebecca Landrum as his frowzy and frustrated wife manifests a pathetic willfulness in her pursuit of Miss Lonelyhearts that is immensely effective. Together, they make an appropriately ill-matched couple, a fatal reification of those pain-filled letters which are Miss Lonelyhearts' particular curse.
ALSO FINE is Margaret Downey as Adele Farnum, Shrike's target. Aided by apt makeup and costuming, she fits comfortably into the '30s atmosphere, capturing well the archness of the classic tease. Miss Lonelyhearts' newsroom colleagues also do a more than adequate job. Derek Pajaczkowski as Ned Gates, "The failure incarnate," swings adroitly between hope and bitterness, and Brian Foley as "Flash" Goldsmith excels at wry faces. Less convincing is Brooke Davida Waxburg's Mrs. Shrike, more fluttery than seductive, while Holly Blatman as Betty--"the typical American girl, well-scrubbed and soft as steel"--labors courageously with the worst lines in the script.
Leslie Keenan, Molly MacLean and Steve Jacobs, as three of Miss Lonelyhearts' correspondents, deliver poignant pleas for help in dramatically lighted and staged sequences. MacLean's portrayal of a Puerto Rican woman plagued by kidney trouble and unwanted pregnancies is one of the highlights of the production.
Kolzak's Miss Lonelyhearts also boasts an inventive set, which places the newsroom squarely in the center of a hopelessly corrupt world. Period music between scenes, another nice touch, reinforces the '30's flavor of the show.
In the end, this Miss Lonelyhearts succeeds in evoking the supreme negativity of West's vision, Teichmann's occasional soppiness notwithstanding. Because of the peculiar balance of this production, however, we don't even need to wait for the final curtain to experience the onset of despair. When Shrike, shrill as the song of the bird he's named for, tells Miss Lonelyhearts to "Get off this milk of human kindness bit," we wish the misguided kid would take his advice.