The Kramer

Terrapin Theatre

The Homage That Follows

American Blues Theatre

By Jack Helbig

Like Thoreau, I fear those who seek to do me good. I’ve had enough experience with doorbell ringers, Bible thumpers, and evangelical vegetarians (many of them in my own family) to know that anyone who claims to have my best interests at heart probably doesn’t. What they do have, usually, is a surfeit of mixed motives and hidden agendas: anger disguised as benevolence, envy masquerading as affection, low self-esteem tarted up as aggressive good samaritanism. But they all have the same rotten objective: to meddle with someone else’s life whether that person likes it or not.

My fear of do-gooders was confirmed by the two Mark Medoff plays that opened last week, Terrapin Theatre’s The Kramer and American Blues Theatre’s The Homage That Follows. Though the plays premiered more than 20 years apart–The Kramer in 1972 and Homage in 1994–both of their plots revolve around characters who royally muck up other people’s lives in the name of doing them good.

In The Kramer the admissions director for a small secretarial school, Bart Kramer, becomes obsessed with improving the lives of his rumpled male secretary, Art, and Judy, one of his more repressed and unsuccessful students. The Homage That Follows features dueling meddlers, a formerly self-righteous teacher, Katherine Samuels, and a highly intelligent but low-achieving mathematician turned ranch hand, Archie. (To be fair, Katherine’s meddling days are over by the time the play starts, but Medoff hints that the strident 60s-style radicalism she preached in her classroom lives on in her beautiful, famous, morally confused, chemically-dependent TV-actress daughter, Lucy.)

In both plays the character most intent on doing good does the most harm. Kramer intentionally breaks up Art’s and Judy’s marriages, then sets about destroying Art’s life when Art rebels against his overbearing ways. In Homage Archie murders Lucy in the play’s first minutes in order to “save” her from her dissipated Hollywood life. Even in Medoff’s most successful play to date–Children of a Lesser God, which ran for 887 performances on Broadway in the early 80s–there’s a meddler, a teacher who intervenes in the life of a difficult deaf student. But because mainstreaming a lonely, attractive disabled person is a goal we can all agree on, his aggressive altruism rarely registers as anything but kindness, even when it lands him in bed with his student.

That the same basic character type would appear again and again in the work of a writer as prolific but essentially uninspired as Medoff is hardly surprising. What’s surprising is how much more skillfully written and fully realized a play The Homage That Follows is than Medoff’s other, earlier works.

In The Kramer, for example, we pretty much know from the first or second scene what makes the cartoon characters tick, where their story is going, and how long it’s going to take to get there (much longer than necessary). Even the big plot twists, such as the revelation that Kramer has lied about his Ivy League credentials, are not very surprising: we know Kramer is a phony from the word go. These flaws are exaggerated by Susan Shimer’s unfocused direction–she fumbles nearly every dramatic moment in the play–and by the poor to merely adequate Terrapin cast, most of whom struggle mightily to deliver their subtext-free performances. Scott Letscher’s B+ portrayal of Kramer is the one exception, though it hardly matters since much of his fine work is buried under everyone else’s mediocrity.

In Homage, however, Medoff gives us five well-rounded characters, each strong enough to be the center of his or her own play. Then he gives them a story complicated enough to hold our interest but not so complex that we feel overwhelmed. Half of what makes this play fascinating is working out the web of relationships connecting one character with another. Katherine, for example, once had a brief affair with the public defender representing Archie, the man who killed her daughter, while he was representing her and her husband back when they were political dissidents; the lawyer also seems to have lusted in his heart after Lucy. Likewise Gilbert, the deputy sheriff guarding Archie, was once spurned by Lucy when they were both in high school, and he also lusted in his heart after his teacher, Katherine. And so on.

Even more fascinating is the way Medoff is able to spin a hybrid story, part murder mystery (we know who killed Lucy but not why) and part touching family drama. This combination is especially effective soon after mother and daughter tearfully reconcile in good movie-of-the-week fashion, hugging each other tightly and burying the past, when the daughter’s horrible murder is restaged. It’s a plot development we can see coming from miles away, but as in Oedipus Rex and Romeo and Juliet, forewarned is not forearmed. Lucy’s murder, like Oedipus’s eye gouging and Romeo and Juliet’s double suicide, is all the more horrible and powerful because we know it’s inevitable. (I have not, by the way, just revealed the play’s ending, which features a twist too surprising and satisfying to give away.)

It’s a measure of the depth of Brian Russell’s direction and of the perfection of his casting that at no time does Medoff’s story seem melodramatic. Nor are any of his characters portrayed with soap-opera glibness. Quite the opposite, in fact. Manao DeMuth as the sexy, screwed-up starlet Lucy is not a mere pillhead bimbo but a confused person, at once a grown woman and a psychically wounded overaged adolescent. Similarly, Carmen Roman portrays the grief-stricken mother not as someone prone to hysterics but as a woman who’s collapsed in on herself and become an emotional black hole, releasing nothing.

The real revelation in this American Blues Theatre production, however, is Patrick McNulty. His subtly graded performance as the mad meddler Archie–one minute charming and seductive, the next certifiable–adds the touch of chaos Medoff’s play needs to be truly compelling. He makes you believe that Archie yearns for Lucy–so much that he’d do anything for her, even kill her. Most terrifying of all, McNulty convinces us that Archie sincerely believes he was right to shoot her down in cold blood.

After all, he only had her best interests at heart.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bill Wood.