Griffin Theatre Company

“I don’t do peace.” –David Steven Rappoport

Playwright David Steven Rappoport is pissed off at what he calls the American “culture of optimism,” our sense that it is our inalienable right not only to pursue happiness but to possess it. In Cave Life, Rappoport wanted to set up a situation in which that expectation would be almost inconceivable. The result is a delightfully offbeat, often hilarious play about utter despair.

The play revolves around Charleston Silvers, a sweet, psychotic tour guide for a museum of natural history. Charleston’s psychosis comes out in her hallucinations–well, actually she has just one hallucination, but it’s a doozy. A Neanderthal man named Enki appears whenever Charleston is in turmoil; mostly he wants to make love to her.

With some medication and the encouragement of her husband, Frank, Charleston has managed not to see Enki for quite some time. But when she discovers that she’s pregnant, once again Enki begins to make unscheduled appearances in Charleston’s life and wreak havoc with her good intentions.

In Rappoport’s wild world, however, Enki doesn’t seem so very unusual. Husband Frank is none too sane, amusing himself by playing “train wreck” with his brain-damaged son from a previous marriage. Frank’s mistress is a chain-smoking nymphomaniac, with an appointment book for scheduling her many men and a husband who understands and encourages her many liaisons. And when we meet Charleston’s abusive mother, a woman with a far more tenuous grasp on reality than her daughter has, Enki starts to seem awfully tame.

In fact, Enki is just about the most sane and helpful of the lot. He clarifies Charleston’s choices for her by giving her a loving ultimatum: she can either be crazy and have him, or be sane and have the baby. He even has the good manners to stay away for a while so that she has time to make a wise decision.

As time passes and Charleston becomes more and more frightened–she’s afraid to tell Frank about the pregnancy and afraid she’ll abuse the baby–her need for Enki becomes obvious. But when Enki returns to her, Charleston is forced to face the consequences of her decision. The results are not what she bargained for, and all the characters in the play (with the possible exception of Frank’s mistress, whose rich European tradition of despair allows her to revel in the darker side of life) end up with their lives in pieces.

No, Rappoport does not do peace. Or hope. Or happiness. But he does do humor. In spite of its bleak story, Cave Life is jam-packed with humor–black, of course. Without that, audience members might have to have sharp objects removed from their possession as they leave the theater. It is that beautifully crafted mix of humor and despair, reality and hallucination, danger and safety that makes Cave Life such an intriguing play.

But the Griffin Theatre Company production shows only one side of the coin. Hopelessly grounded in the American optimism Rappoport despises, they play everything for laughs. It’s as if director Richard A. Barletta and his cast were afraid of the undercurrent of blackness and had done everything in their power to ignore it. In this production there is no danger, nothing is at stake. And because the despair is kept at bay, as the play draws to its dark close, the Griffin production becomes less and less believable.

The problem is one of attitude rather than aptitude. All of the actors are competent enough–and Andrea Weisberg is more than competent as Frank’s mistress, Sophronia. Though her accent seems simply generic-brand foreign, Weisberg is one of the few members of this cast to actually let a little darkness in. Of course Sophronia does get most of the good lines: “There’s a lot to be said for despair,” she chides Frank. “Not only does it encourage philosophy, but it often leads to spectacular sex.” Weisberg gives Sophronia a languid decadence to match her twisted but compelling wisdom. G. Scott Thomas, in a number of different roles, shows a marvelously twisted comic sense, and Kevin Farrell plays the brain-damaged Augie with just the right touch of humor and sincerity.

Mona Mansour as Charleston doesn’t show much depth of emotion, though she does have a natural sweetness. As Enki, Rich Fredrickson is surprisingly nonsexual for a hallucination whose main function is to make love. But the biggest problem is not the general level of the acting or the fault of any particular actor. It’s the complete absence of the underlying hopelessness that’s supposed to afflict all the characters, each in his or her own way, and the corresponding lack of commitment to the extremity of style for which the script seems to cry out.

Griffin’s designers are much more successful. Becky Flory’s modular set is extremely malleable, facilitating an interchange between the real and the unreal. A white sheet in the shape of an unidentifiable animal’s hide is hung at the rear of the stage, in front of a fortuitously suggestive cavernous backstage area. Slides projected on it allow for each scene to have its own simple and interesting texture. Jay McAleer’s lighting creates numerous different environments and moods, and John Nasca’s costumes for the most part provide clear statements about the characters. (The exception is the costume for Enki, which makes him look like a hippy Fred Flintstone.) Sound designer Rick Netter once again shows his talent for finding music that is perfectly attuned to both the mood and content of the piece.

But despite everyone’s best efforts, it’s easy to leave Griffin Theatre thinking you’ve just seen a nice little play. And Cave Life is anything but.