Close Your Eyes
at the Chopin Theatre
In the opening shot of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, the camera pans down from a perfect blue sky to reveal perfect red roses before a perfect white picket fence. A fire truck glides by dreamily, almost in slow motion, with a friendly fireman standing on the running board and waving beside his dalmatian. Children cross the street with assistance from a guard. A man waters his lush lawn, then suddenly convulses and collapses unconscious, a dog playfully nipping at the water shooting from the hose he still holds in his hand. Then the camera burrows under the grass to reveal a cacophonous storm of voracious insects tearing through small-town America’s roots.
The shot is only two minutes long, but it establishes everything Lynch needs to give his tricky fable credibility. He needs a world where the pure and the corrupt, the pristine and the grotesque, are inseparable, where every moment of comedy is tinged with the threat of violence and every image of perversion holds the seed of parody. Thanks to the camera’s magical subterranean dive at the very beginning, we know that Lynch will take us to the most horrid, discomfiting recesses of his imagination.
Playwright Lance Eliot Adams would do well to study Lynch’s opening, for it contains all the psychological intrigue and complexities of tone he struggles for two hours to capture in Close Your Eyes. Like Lynch, Adams wants to examine the teeming underbelly of classic Americana, here a 1950s town called Olive where the high school kids gather at the soda fountain, the greasers clash with the jocks, and everybody’s biggest worry seems to be finding a date for the Friday dance. During the first 25 minutes of this new play, a world not far removed from Happy Days unfolds. A kid named Rail schools his greaser-wannabe protege, Axel, in the finer points of chick acquisition. Good girl Hope dumps her square-jawed quarterback boyfriend, Mark, for the lure of Rail’s switchblade. Mark rebounds by flirting with squirrelly Vicky, who would never have dreamed he’d ask her out. Looming in the background is the mysterious Mrs. Sandman, a rich widow rumored to have killed her husband years ago and now rattling around her lonely mansion. For 25 minutes–an eternity onstage–Close Your Eyes is unwaveringly cute.
Sometime around minute 26, Rail and Hope argue and he throws her violently to the ground. From her response, it’s clear this isn’t the first time. But it’s the first hint we get that something might be rotten in utopia. Rather than coming across as a moment of revelation, however, the incident seems forced and incongruous, as if the Fonz had been discovered fondling himself in front of Mrs. Cunningham. Adams’s world has been too pristine for too long for even this small shift to be believable.
The problem is not only a matter of preparation–the potential for violence needs to be there from the start–but of psychology. Up to this point Adams’s characters have lacked that uniquely human trait, ambivalence. Most are types, and precisely the types reduced to cliche by 30 years of national Grease tours. Almost no one seems to harbor a secret. Adams doesn’t make us wonder if there’s anything more here than meets the eye–a fatal error for a playwright who wants to expose layers of depravity. And for the most part director Kenneth Lee and his cast keep things simple and straightforward, ignoring opportunities to play against type and give Adams’s world fuller dimensions.
The more perversions Adams tries to expose–childhood abuse, sexual violence, self-mutilation–the more forced it all seems: the increasingly weighty scenes falter on their tissue-thin foundation. In fact, near the end of the first act, as Mark sits at home with his Ward Cleaver-esque dad, Adams pushes so hard that his world collapses completely. Mark’s father cheerfully tells his son, “Well, I’m off to fuck your mother,” then can’t imagine why the boy is shocked. This is a father who simply can’t exist in the Olive Adams has established.
Although the play’s tone is too confused to give Close Your Eyes psychological coherence, one scene offers a glimmer of the work’s potential. Rail gets a job doing housework for Mrs. Sandman, a position he takes for the sole purpose of scoring with her. He saunters about her living room, cavalierly moving in for the kill–and she turns the tables on him, holding him momentarily captive and emasculating him by granting his desires on her terms. The shock is real, as is the trauma experienced by both characters–the only two who seem to possess real emotional reserves.
Like Lynch, Adams wants to bring unpleasant truths to light and complicate the simplicity of American mythology. It’s an effort that’s always welcome, especially now that American ideals are being perverted in the service of a neocolonial crusade. But so long as Adams’s world remains as simple as the mythology he aims to deconstruct, his work can’t possibly have the impact he wants.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.