Next Theatre

Filmmaker Milos Forman once admitted in an interview that he learns more from films that don’t work for one reason or another than from ones that do. Next Theatre’s current production says a lot about the paramount importance of a strong script to the life of a production.

Bryan Williams’s script is not a strong one. It’s clear from the playwright’s notes in the program that he thinks he has written a great and thoughtful play: “The play is about comprehending a mystery. . .the familiar mystery of human life: how random, irrelevant, coincidental events link themselves into a chain as inevitable as history.” From the overblown way Williams describes In This Fallen City it sounds as if he has opted to write a dramatic version of Hegel’s theory of history.

Williams is not really interested in “comprehending” the mystery of being or the mystery of fate. What he really wants is to play around with a pair of considerably more mundane mysteries: What does Abner Abelson know about the night of the murder that he won’t say? and, How can I keep him from telling long enough to fill up two acts’ worth of stage time? Williams’s methods of exploring these “mysteries” are no different from Agatha Christie’s. He withholds information, throws out red herrings, and titillates us with white lies and half-truths until that golden quarter hour when everything becomes crystal clear and we get to go home.

The story involves a grouchy old man who is being “crucified in the press” for having been a bad neighbor. It seems that Abner awoke one night from uneasy dreams to find a naked boy, significantly named Angel, crouching in his living room, and a gang of jeering gang members outside his front door. What happened next is unclear. Whether Abner threw Angel out of his living room or whether the gang broke down the door and pulled him away is the great “mystery” of the play. What is clear, as newscasters are fond of saying, is that the gang ended up killing Angel and leaving his naked body under the tree in Abner’s front yard, and poor Abner Abelson alone knows what happened.

No surprise, Abner will not talk to the press, preferring instead to endure the slings and arrows of outrageous accusations and then sulk in silence while the newspapers label him the “Bad Samaritan” and transform him into a potent symbol of urban indifference. More surprising, Abner adamantly refuses to deal with the local authorities, and thus obstructs justice. The playwright takes careful pains to show Abner’s distrust of the police. They are ineffectual and uninterested in the rights of victims, he says cynically. “They are just actors dressed as police.”

If you have one character in a two-character play who absolutely refuses to talk, you have to have another who will do anything to make him talk. This is Paul Forrest. Paul’s job in the play is to keep asking “What really happened that night?” until the play is over.

Paul shows up at Abner’s door, a tape recorder hidden in his pocket, and tries to befriend the poor man. Slowly, slowly, slowly he gains his confidence: he helps install a door lock, fixes a squeaky hinge. Eventually Paul learns a few things about Abner–he’s lived in the neighborhood a long time, his wife just died, he paints abstracts “because they are easier to paint when you don’t know what you are doing.” In turn Abner learns that Paul lives with one woman, goes out with another, and was Angel’s teacher. This relationship is actually quite nice, helped along by Nathan Davis and Si Osborne’s expert acting.

However, Williams is after more important game than mere human emotions. He wants to say IMPORTANT THINGS about urban life, and he doesn’t care if he has to be careless with the reality of his own play to get these things across. Thus Abner and Paul, from time to time, say portentous lines about themselves or society, on the order of “Abner Abelson is not a syndrome, he’s a human being,” or, “It would be nice if the world were filled with heroes. It’s not. It’s filled with human beings.”

Unfortunately, not for a minute do we ever believe it really matters whether Abner tossed Angel out of his living room or Angel willingly chose to walk out into the jaws of death. The truth will set neither Abner nor Paul free, and it certainly won’t resurrect Angel.

All that Williams’s “truth” will do is satisfy our curiosity. And inspiring an audience to leave the theater thinking only “Oh, that’s what happened” is not so lofty a goal. Nor is it necessary to air such conventional opinions about crime (it’s bad), the decay of neighborhoods (it’s sad), or gang violence (it hurts innocent people).

Ironically, the most dramatically charged moment of the performance I saw had nothing to do with Williams’s script. During a very quiet scene in which Abner Abelson tells the sorrowful story of his own son’s murder, an elderly woman in the second row began rustling her very crinkly paper bag. For a moment it was annoying. Then it was rude. And then, when a full 20 seconds had passed and she was still rustling away, it was absolutely amazing that she could continue–with the entire second row and part of the third glaring at her. It was then that Nathan Davis, or rather Abner Abelson (for Davis never dropped out of character), looked at the woman from the stage, and in a curt voice scolded the woman crinkling her paper. And miracle of miracles, she stopped.

That’s what theater is all about: speaking the unspoken, articulating the as yet unformed thoughts of the audience. For a brief, shining moment, Nathan Davis spoke for all of us–“Would you please!”–and we all loved him for it, and then he had to return to his dreary part.