Playwrights’ Center

The most treacherous motto playwrights can adopt is in vino veritas. Yeah, they cry, that’s it, get the characters drunk so they have to tell the truth. . .

But in real life, Edward Albee notwithstanding, it ain’t necessarily so. People may spill a lot of stuff when they’re stinko, including words, but they seldom touch truth. Grandiose outpourings of megalomania, maudlin declarations of undying allegiance, impulsive insults and hair-trigger quarrels, maybe–but little veritas. It’s just as well: the truth is best approached when sober.

Still, in the theater of beginning playwrights, all you need is to get your people to chugalug and old friends start to dig up skeletons and hang out dirty linen as if it were sweeps week in the soaps. God forbid that anyone should down a few drinks and not have a hideous secret ready to explode at the drop of a climax. There’s no easier exposition than the “revelations” that come from the bottom of the bottle. Nor costlier, if you consider credibility.

In Feast of Illusions, a Playwrights’ Center world premiere, John Lisbon Wood refuses to rely on booze to force out his characters’ secret sins–he also uses reefers. The chemistry may be different, but the dramatic result is the same.

It’s a shame Wood resorts to such easy devices because his subject–the harm done by a selfish liberal who loves humanity but hates people–is good soil for conflict. Richard is the play’s official whipping boy, a former 60s radical who in the late 70s is “nauseated with impotence,” an impotence he takes out on others.

A disillusioned part-time humanities instructor, Richard unctuously tells his opening-day class that questions count more than answers. It’s just as well–he doesn’t have any to offer. All he can do is call his Volkswagen “Nietzsche,” because it’s valiant but broken-down, and wonder why the motor grinds on but the car never achieves “forward motion”–a metaphor so broad you could drive a VW through it.

Yoked to this lapsed and bitter idealist is forsaken Sarah, the wife who reflects Richard like a cracked mirror. After propping up his attempt at a literary journal and giving up her own hope of becoming a writer, she now toils as a clerk while Richard takes his time finishing his dissertation.

Even booze and pot together aren’t enough to expose the lies behind this marriage, however. You need a third party. Enter Wendy, Sarah’s former college roommate and, like Sarah, one of Richard’s former students. Armed with a PhD in “feminist studies,” Wendy is not only up for a job at Richard’s school, she’s got some unfinished personal business. We learn that during a civil rights march, Richard really did make love, not war–to Wendy, violently. She went on to have an abortion, a nervous breakdown, and some very intensive therapy. Clearly Richard’s idealism is highly selective.

Wood is good at showing how people dupe each other to fool themselves. When he doesn’t inflate his dialogue, he can turn a phrase on a dime.

It’s his structure than sinks him. His first act sets up no crisis; it just cuts back and forth between blowhard Richard’s pompous lecture to his class and the women’s growing inebriation in Richard and Sarah’s living room. True, the act’s emptiness makes some sense because the play exists only for its final blowup. The other business–the ladies symbolically burying Richard under books, and his pathetic attempt to block out their conversation by compulsively grading themes–is padding.

In the end, in pain but still in charge, Wendy presents the playwright’s clinical conclusions: she denounces Richard and Sarah as a couple who thrive on failure; Sarah is a “covert clinger,” and Richard a sucker of life.

And what is Richard’s reaction when Wendy leaves following her ugly accusations? After a hug from Sarah, he asks, “Whatever happened to our baby?” This four-lane allusion to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is followed by his prattling on about how to fix the car–the baby is “Nietzsche”! Was it necessary to hang Richard 50 feet high? Thirty feet would have done fine.

Jim MacDowell’s staging doesn’t exactly set fire to the script but it keeps things moving, and the plot’s machinery shows through only sporadically. Even the obvious choices–like playing the rape revelation under lurid red lighting–perversely fit the plot’s one-size-fits-all solutions.

Susan Shimer and Laura Hamilton run their drugged gamut, which requires them to be crocked and high throughout, like troupers. But Shimer never gets past that; we don’t sense a needy woman beneath Sarah’s cannabistic overindulgence. Hamilton brings more range to Wendy, stripping her of her professional panache to reveal the unhealed hurt. Edward E. Bevan, struggling with a clay- pigeon part that mingles overwritten dialogue with underworked motivation, is handicapped by his own intelligence; sensitivity is lost on Richard.

Daniel Michael Frazier’s design is meant to suggest both the 60s and the 70s, faintly superimposing graffiti on the apartment’s walls and rug. But it just looks like someone vandalized the joint and Sarah and Richard never noticed.

But that’s what drugs will do.