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Failing to Compel

Failing directed by Lester W. Thompson, Jr. at the Loeb, today at 5 and 9

By Mark Chaffie

WEDNESDAY EVENING the Loeb Mainstage offered a production the likes of which have not been seen in ten years--it is the first student-authored play on the Mainstage since 1967. Failing is the work of Guy Gallo '78, and while it is by no means an excellent play, it is a valiant effort. Regardless of the merits of the play itself, it is heartening to see a student production-any student production-on the Mainstage after such an unwarranted hiatus. Harvard theater is, after all, produced by and generally for students, so it seems illogical that student-written shows should so rarely be chosen for Loeb presentation.

As for Failing itself, well, it is hard to judge a first effort without being overly critical. Gallo's play bears the marks of a talented young playwright, yet at the same time it bears the scars that usually mar a first work, albeit in a somewhat unusual fashion. The production itself has some very strong points, but also some weak acting, an annoyingly static plot, and seemingly uninspired direction, all of which leave it somewhat lifeless.

The play involves the story of an old Hungarian scholar who is trying to author a book about Hungary after the First World War and Germany during the Weimar Republic and during the rise of Hitler. As Antal Erdelyi, the 85-year-old and decidedly eccentric protagonist, professional acting teacher Robert Owczarek puts on a marvelous performance that in the long run saves the show from triviality and boredom. Owczarek splendidly mimics the movements, speech pattern and inflection of an elderly European gentleman, getting the most out of lines that are sometimes overwritten.

The old man, in failing health, desperately wants the book to be finished, and it seems he has some grave personal stake in the matter. A series of flashbacks detail the interactions of a Communist cell in Berlin circa 1928. The major "failing" involved is a missed opportunity to kill Hitler, or so the old man perceives it. The main action in the play, excitingly enough, rotates about the writing of the book, complemented by flashbacks. Erdelyi hires a young college student, well played by Paul Jackel, to assist him, and the two suffer through an alternately close and cold relationship. But just why the tone of the relationship varies so is never quite clear.

Failing is an amibitious first effort, and it is precisely because it is so ambitious that it falls short of brilliance. Most young playwrights try to take on some vast, earth-shaking moral or social problem in their early efforts. Instead, Gallo tangles with a seemingly dead issue, that is, one man's struggle with personal demons-in his guilt, he believes he is partly responsible for the rise of Nazism. Although the twist in the plot is not revealed until the end of the play, it is rather easy to guess, which is not so much a flaw in the writing as an indication of the weakness inherent in the subject matter. How the issue of guilt-the moral culpability for the holocaust-is applicable to America in 1977 is not explained. Is Erdelyi trying to pass the guilt for the "failing" onto Stephen, his young assistant, or is he simply a lonely old man reaching out for companionship? The answer seems to involve a bit of both, but the ambiguity chafes the nerves.

FAILING IS MARRED by several problems that could have been avoided. Gallo's script is too long, filled with repetitious dialogue, particularly in the old man's lines. The blocking is unimaginative, as is most of Thompson's direction. John Manulis as Ronay Gustav, the central character in the flashbacks, does nothing with his lines, reminding one of William Shatner. He is offset by David Moore, who turns in a creditable performance, save for an inexplicable tendency to yell when talking will clearly suffice. Other good points include the clever set, which makes use of some unusual and effective ramps, and brilliant lighting. Still, there are too many meaningless moments and hackneyed dramatic devices in Failing, the winner of last year's Phyllis Anderson Prize for Harvard student playwriting, to allow an ecstatic reaction. There are several excellent scenes, however, and Gallo's potential is evident. Even if the show is somewhat baffling, it is good to see a real student production at the Loeb.

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