Alien Hand, or Let the Right Be a Vision of the Left

Trap Door Theatre

By Albert Williams

One of the biggest hits of the 1940-’41 Broadway season, the musical Lady in the Dark, was also an artistic landmark. This singular collaboration by three major talents–playwright-director Moss Hart, composer Kurt Weill, and lyricist Ira Gershwin (in his first Broadway show since the untimely death of his brother George)–took an offbeat subject, psychoanalysis, and treated it in a fundamentally serious way. That, along with its innovative use of musical numbers to develop character (in a series of lavish operatic dream sequences), made it a significant departure from the frothy escapism of most musicals in the years before Oklahoma! and Carousel transformed the genre.

Yet today Lady in the Dark is little known and almost never produced. It’s remembered almost entirely for a pair of songs that served as showstopping vehicles for the performers who introduced them: British star Gertrude Lawrence, whose “The Saga of Jenny” allowed her to drop her veddy English propriety for a bump-and-grind act, and up-and-coming Catskills comedian Danny Kaye, whose tongue-twisting “Tschaikowsky” launched his career as a nimble patter singer. These witty showpieces still pop up in sophisticated cabaret acts. But Hart’s script is virtually unplayable today, as Light Opera Works demonstrated a few years ago in a murky, disappointing revival. Its plot–about an unhappy career woman who learns from a week’s worth of psychoanalysis that what she really needs is a good man, not a profession–is ludicrously sexist. And the not-so-clever dialogue suggests that, as a writer, Hart was a lot more successful in his collaborations with George S. Kaufman (their partnership had only recently ended) than on his own.

So it seems rather perverse to dispense with Lady in the Dark’s music while focusing on its text–which is exactly what Trap Door Theatre has done in Alien Hand, or Let the Right Be a Vision of the Left, director Catherine Sullivan’s experimental “interpretation” of the work. Yet by stripping away the score, Sullivan–a Los Angeles performance artist whose involvement with Trap Door dates back to her college friendship with Trap Door artistic director Beata Pilch at the California Institute of the Arts–finds hidden strengths in the long-neglected play. If Hart’s take on female psychology was absurdly simplistic, his interest in the way dreams express hidden fears and longings gave his script more depth than is usually acknowledged. By heightening its inherent darkness, Sullivan finds unexpected power in the original even as she critiques its shortcomings; and the creativity, quality, and intelligence of Alien Hand’s performance and design affirm Trap Door’s place at the forefront of Chicago’s fringe theater scene.

Inspired by Hart’s own experiences on the psychiatrist’s couch (critic Brooks Atkinson joked that the show was Hart’s way of recouping the money he’d spent on his shrink), Lady in the Dark concerns a New York fashion editor, Liza Elliott, who at the height of her career finds herself unraveling under the pressure of long-submerged neuroses. A take-charge “boss lady” whose severe style is in sharp contrast to the colorful, flamboyant images she promotes in her magazine Allure, Liza is at a crossroads: her longtime lover, an older married man named Kendall Nesbitt, is finally getting a divorce. Terrified of making a commitment, Liza begins a whirlwind romance with Randy Curtis, a hunky but shallow movie star who drops by the magazine for a photo shoot. Randy’s romancing isn’t enough to bolster Liza’s confidence, however, which has crumbled to the point where she can’t even decide whether Allure’s April issue should display a tried-and-true seasonal look or a more inventive circus shot suggested by the magazine’s macho ad manager, Charley Johnson.

Wrestling with whether to choose the Easter cover or the circus cover–symbolically, whether to marry Kendall or act on her attraction to the insolently flirtatious Charley–Liza seeks refuge in a series of dreams. In one she’s a glamorous lady of leisure, pursued by everyone from Aldous Huxley and Igor Stravinsky to President Roosevelt and the Yale rowing team; in another she’s transported back to her small-town high school, where even being class valedictorian can’t help her win the boy she likes; and in another she’s the star of a circus that turns into a trial, in which she’s charged with not making up her mind. She pleads her defense in “The Saga of Jenny,” a bluesy ballad about a dame brought low by her resolute nature: “Jenny made her mind up when she was three / She herself was going to trim the Christmas tree, / Christmas Eve she lit the candles, threw the tapers away / Little Jenny was an orphan on Christmas Day.”

With her analyst, Dr. Brooks, helping her to interpret these fantasies, Liza tracks down the source of her disturbance: a childhood rivalry with her beautiful mother for her father’s love, which made her terrified of competing with other women and drove her into the male-dominated workplace. The solution is simple–and simplistic. Liza invites ad manager Charley to become both her man and her coeditor–implying that she’ll soon step aside, letting him run the show when they get married. (Is this what they mean by editorial and advertising getting into bed together?)

Alien Hand critiques Lady in the Dark’s outdated stereotypes while probing its universal implications about sexual terror by employing a simple but striking device: the actors play the subtext–the desires and conflicts hidden within the dialogue–in a boldly exaggerated style that heightens but never campily trivializes the characters’ emotions. This approach thrusts into the foreground the rage, terror, and lust that simmer beneath Hart’s urbane repartee and Gershwin’s snappy lyrics (recited here without their musical accompaniment), giving the show a weirdly hallucinatory quality that blurs the original distinction between dreams and “real life.” Reinforcing this style are Richard Norwood’s eerie, shadowy lighting (produced by, among other devices, an overhead projector) and Bob Rokos’s fascinating soundscape, which employs a variety of instruments and props, from a beat-up old accordion and an electric guitar played with a bow to a rubber beach toy, to create a disturbing aural representation of Liza’s internal stress (a well-placed microphone, for instance, transforms the sound of fingers idly tapping on a tabletop into maddening thuds).

Sullivan further reworks the source by reinventing crucial characters, turning them into the nightmare opposites of Hart’s. As she reenvisions the kindly Dr. Brooks (Sean Marlow), he’s an ominously enigmatic authority figure like Dan O’Herlihy’s sex-obsessed shrink in the 1962 remake of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The genteel, middle-aged Kendall is played by Danny Belrose as an oversexed young working-class stud right out of Tennessee Williams (whose Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, another study of female sexual repression, was one of Sullivan’s secondary sources here, as was Shaw’s Saint Joan). A chorus of Liza’s male admirers turns into a pack of snarling dogs. And Randy (a role created by Victor Mature) is hilarious as portrayed by–a pink hand puppet.

Her interactions with these bizarre characters provoke in Liza–played with remarkable emotional fluidity and impressive vocal and physical technique by LA actor Sarah Taylor–a mercurial range of responses, from the semihysteria with which she describes her dreams to the manic kiddie-show idiocy with which she converses with Randy to the animalistic lust with which she gropes and kisses Kendall. Such extreme stylization makes Alien Hand’s few “straight” moments all the more effective; a beautifully played flashback in which teenage Liza has her heart bruised, if not broken, by Marlow as a fickle classmate is genuinely touching. (This scene also includes the one song left intact: the wistful “My Ship,” which Taylor sings with poignant simplicity.) Strong support comes from Chris DeMaria, who plays Charley with an oily surliness that mocks his role as sexual savior; Pilch as Liza’s smart-aleck assistant; and Gary Sugarman as Russell Paxton, Allure’s screamingly gay photographer (one of the great disappointments of this production is that Sugarman doesn’t get to deliver “Tschaikowsky”).

I suspect that a familiarity with Lady in the Dark–even if only from listening to a recording–is necessary to appreciate Sullivan’s reworking, which is imaginative, even far-fetched at times, yet mostly true to undercurrents in the original. Even for viewers without this frame of reference, however, Alien Hand’s impressive performances and design elements make it well worth the attention of admirers of experimental theater. Certainly it’s encouraging to see this fine young company remind Chicago audiences that there’s more to Moss Hart than bland revivals of The Man Who Came to Dinner.

In my June 5 review of the Organic Touchstone Company’s Coming of the Hurricane, I neglected to credit a crucial member of the show’s production team: sound designer Rodger D. Kurth, whose well-chosen background music and well calibrated effects contribute greatly to the atmosphere of this post-Civil War period piece.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still by Mary Flipkowski.