The Petrified Forest

Mary-Arrchie Theatre

The Killer and the Comic

Mary-Arrchie Theatre

It must have been a thrill to be an American socialist in 1935. The Bolsheviks had proved they had staying power. Upton Sinclair had made an impressive bid for the California governorship the year before with his socialist EPIC (End Poverty in California) platform, receiving nearly one million votes. And to cap it off, President Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act, creating the first federal welfare programs in the nation’s history.

When the curtain went up on Robert Emmet Sherwood’s The Petrified Forest on Broadway early that year, a second American revolution seemed possible, even imminent. Sherwood must have felt the rumblings, because he opens his play with the lines “Certainly it’s Revolution! And that’s exactly what we got to come to, whether a lot of old fluffs back east like it or not.” The nation’s treasured ideals of rugged individualism and free-market economics, shaken to the core by the ravages of the Great Depression, must have seemed like fossilized driftwood. As the romantic would-be novelist Alan Squier (clearly Sherwood’s alter ego) declares halfway through the play, comparing America to the Arizona petrified forest, “It’s the world of outmoded ideas. Platonism–patriotism–Christianity–romance–the economics of Adam Smith–they’re all so many dead stumps in the desert.”

The Petrified Forest is an overlooked American masterpiece, one of those monumental high modernist epics that recast the everyday world in mythic proportions. Perhaps the play’s reputation hasn’t quite recovered from director Archie Mayo’s 1936 celluloid banalization. His Hollywood version introduced a white-hot Humphrey Bogart to the world but reduced Sherwood’s sweeping social commentary to Saturday-afternoon tear jerk. Today even the Blockbuster Video packaging can offer only faint praise: “Prototype characters and much-imitated plot. Film’s treatment of black characters is interesting for its time.”

Mary-Arrchie Theatre wisely steers clear of the film’s familiar iconography, reviving the original script. Sherwood finds America in a last-chance filling station on the edge of the Arizona desert. Here the passionately romantic Gabby (she’s half French, she takes pains to point out) has been suffocating under her father’s “tinhorn patriotism,” her grandfather’s negligent stinginess, and her relentless paramour’s fecklessness (to prove his manhood, he carries in his wallet a newspaper clipping from his college years favorably comparing him to Red Grange). When Squier drifts in and indulges Gabby’s love of “France and art and dancing in the streets,” she finally allows herself to imagine a life away from this literal and emotional desert. She is America on the brink of rebirth, Squier muses. Her escape is foiled, however, when the notorious outlaw Duke Mantee–the last great rugged individualist, doomed to historical obsolescence–takes over the station and holds everyone hostage.

The politics of the play are remarkably, even disturbingly current. Duke’s massacre of innocent bystanders in Oklahoma City–right in front of the courthouse, no less–has left the nation’s faith in the federal government’s ability to protect its citizens severely shaken. With militialike disregard for the Constitution they pretend to uphold, Gabby’s father and his cronies at the Ralph M. Kesterling Post of the American Legion don fancy uniforms and sputter jingoist platitudes as they head off on their vigilante crusade.

Sherwood’s strong political conscience gives his drama high stakes. But his artistic sensibility is even stronger: politics ultimately pale beside the mysterious workings of the human heart. Like that other great modernist playwright Jean Anouilh, Sherwood puts his faith in only one force: love, especially when it’s destined to fail. Squier, the man who finds more nourishment in love than in food, knows his days are numbered; Sherwood writes of the character’s first entrance: “There is something about him–and it is impossible in a stage direction to say just what it is–that brings to mind the ugly word ‘condemned.'” Yet Squier can declare, with Sherwood’s full blessing, “Any woman is worth everything that any man has to give–anguish, ecstasy, faith, jealousy, love, hatred, life or death. Don’t you see, this is the excuse for our existence.” Done well, this is the kind of play that can sweep you off your feet one moment and lay bare your soul the next.

At Mary-Arrchie it’s done quite well indeed. Though director Richard Cotovsky has a bit of trouble getting the engine started, once it’s running it purrs like a Duesenberg. His production may not achieve the mythic heights Sherwood hoped for, and Cotovsky has a few staging problems (many of his leads spend much of the second act backed up against the set’s rear wall, as far from the audience as possible). But he does accomplish the most important–and most difficult–feat facing any director tackling this script: getting 19 actors, several of whom have only a handful of lines, into the same play, especially when that play employs such grand, even strained metaphors. Lesser actors would crumble before Sherwood’s demanding, seemingly dated script; imagine having to say with conviction, “You’re kind of crazy. And I guess so am I. And that’s why I think we’d be terribly happy together.” But this ensemble sustains Sherwood’s politicized romantic fantasy for two solid hours. Even the incidental characters, from Mark Morgan’s impeccably subservient chauffeur to Ellie Weingardt’s picture-perfect socialite, fit seamlessly into the fabric of the play. These meticulous performers create not only a world but a worldview; they think as deeply as they feel.

Occasionally that thinking gets in the way; Guy Massey as Squier is the perfect effete intellectual during the first act but lacks the desperation of a man who announces within minutes of his first appearance that he’s thinking about traveling to the Pacific in order to drown himself in it. But as the evening progresses Massey, like his fellow cast members, plunges headfirst into thrilling recklessness.

Through it all Lara Phillips simply mesmerizes as Gabby, a role that defeated Bette Davis on-screen. Phillips ingeniously portrays Gabby as an overgrown sullen teenager, all hunched shoulders and garbled diction. It’s as though the very weight of her unattainable dreams crushes and stifles her. Watching her gradually awaken to the possibilities life holds is at once excruciating and exhilarating. You’re not likely to see a better performance any time this decade.

You’ll see two performances every bit as good, however, if you stay for Mary-Arrchie’s dazzling late-night offering, The Killer and the Comic. Holed up in a woodland cabin outside of Buffalo, serial killer Carl bangs out his memoirs on an old manual typewriter and waits for his next victim to knock unsuspectingly at the door. Today it’s Barney Goldrose, a failed middle-aged Jewish stand-up comedian who was on his way to a gig at a convalescent home when his car skidded off the road.

It may sound like a sitcom treatment even Fox would turn down, but playwright Rooster Mitchell skillfully blends comedy and horror into a giddy, volatile mix. Wisely, his serial killer is no hyperkinetic wacko; he’s a perfectly gracious and charming young man who happens to get off–literally–on murder. Andrew Rothenberg plays Carl flawlessly, exuding a perverse sex appeal that only a marble slab could resist; he drives this production with unrelenting intensity.

As Barney, veteran comedian Paul Zegler is the stuff dreams are made on. From the moment he bursts into the cabin, launching into the story of his car accident as though it were part of his stand-up routine, he brings an unmistakable authenticity to the play. Merely puttering around the cabin muttering to himself he’s as hysterical as he is endearing. And when Carl’s dark side begins to emerge–and Rothenberg is truly terrifying–Zegler shows just what an extraordinary range he has.

Cotovsky directs to perfection, exploiting every suspenseful twist, realizing every comic possibility. This sucker flies. Get your tickets now–it should be selling out well into the next millennium.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Daniel Guidara.