Goodman Theatre

In the last scenes of Steve Tesich’s On the Open Road, which is receiving its world premiere at the Goodman Theatre, two criminals hang crucified from steel girders; as they talk about the meaning of existence, dropping references that range from the Bible and the Mahabharata to Schopenhauer and Kant, the life drains out of them, slowly but surely. The same thing, unfortunately, happens to the play: as Tesich’s characters drift toward death, the playwright tosses out an increasingly disjointed and rambling assortment of philosophical bits and pieces, to increasingly tedious and numbing effect.

It’s a shame, because On the Open Road begins with considerable vitality and fire. Though Tesich’s debt to the plays of Samuel Beckett and the films of Ingmar Bergman is so overwhelmingly obvious that his script at times resembles one of Woody Allen’s existentialist parodies, the play’s first act has a certain spark and bravado that makes for unusually provocative theater; as a result the second act becomes especially annoying as it drags along, looking in vain for deep meaning and instead getting stuck in shallow dramatic mud.

At its first-act best, On the Open Road is a millennial comedy, a vision of life on the eve of Judgment Day. Its setting is a nameless country that resembles by turn Nazi Germany (the music of Wagner and Beethoven booms through the air), postcommunist Eastern Europe, a totalitarian South American nation, “liberated” Kuwait, and the urban wastelands of America’s inner cities; across this dangerous and devastated terrain two homeless men plod toward the ever-elusive Land of the Free. (Add Athol Fugard’s Boesman and Lena to that list of influences.) Brawny, bluff-spoken Angel (played by Steve Pickering with his usual blend of physical and intellectual vitality) pulls a cart of plundered art–gilt-framed paintings, a headless Winged Victory–that his partner and mentor Al (a slickly ironic Jordan Charney) plans to sell for admission to the promised land, which has long ago stopped admitting refugees unless they can pay their way in. Their own unnamed nation has become impossible for them to live in: a religious revival has sparked a series of civil wars among such factions as the Christian Democrats and the Corporate Christians–and Christ himself has returned to earth, apparently to give cello concerts. “Second Coming!” growls Angel in a tone of voice usually identified with such phrases as “Rock and roll, dude,” as he recalls the experience of seeing Jesus in a soccer stadium.

As the two men head toward hoped-for freedom, they gradually develop a teacher-student relationship. Al, too cynical and withdrawn to engage in real friendship with anyone –let alone with the ignorant, brutish Angel–is willing to share his mind if not his heart with his traveling companion. So he instructs Angel in the history of Western culture, and does a damn good job of it too: pretty soon, Angel can rattle off the birth and death dates of the artists whose work he steals from battle-bruised museums and palaces, and he can identify almost any classical theme Al sings. But Angel remains unsatisfied, lonely, while Al pulls back from any basic human contact.

The two men’s interchange dominates the first act, and offers Tesich opportunity for some fairly withering and thought-provoking satire on the state of culture in modern America. Angel’s account of visiting a local museum–it was “scum of the earth day,” so he got in free–rings with sardonic accuracy. So do Al and Angel’s pleas for mercy when they are caught at the border with their stolen goods–“Don’t shoot! We’re bringing culture! We are worthy!”–and Tesich’s grim commentary about people who spend money on art and not other people.

But as Tesich focuses on the Judgment Day theme in act two, the play becomes snared in the very culture-vulture traps it mocked in its first half. Sentenced to death for trying to escape their native land, Angel and Al are offered a reprieve if they will perform a service to the state: assassinate Jesus, who’s being held for interrogation in a monastery. Angel, who’s only seen the messiah in concert from afar, is awestruck to encounter him in person–and startled to observe that all the guy does is play his cello. He’s “a true artist,” explains the monk (Christopher Pieczynski) assigned to guard the savior. “He just plays on. He doesn’t even see us. All He sees is His own personal, inspired, glorious vision of man.” It is that vision that makes humanity feel guilt, shame, and a sense of inadequacy, which drives it to acts of inhumanity and self-destruction, the monk concludes –before he steps in where Angel fears to tread and murders the messiah with his own cello.

The moment exposes a basic flaw in Tesich’s quest for meaning: if Jesus is a divine savior–and nothing in the play suggests he isn’t–then his very being is evidence of the divine meaning of human existence; so is his death, preordained and alluded to in biblical prophecy. Thus Tesich’s question should not be what is the meaning of life? but why does humanity have to suffer? Yet if suffering is at the core of Tesich’s story, it’s undermined by Robert Falls’s visually spectacular staging. George Tsypin’s astonishing set (a network of steel girders framed by a series of eerie vistas), Michael Philippi’s memorably hellish lighting and John Boesche’s mystical projections, Gabriel Berry’s brilliantly detailed costumes, and Rob Milburn’s overpowering sound design all add up under Falls’s direction to remarkable theatrical effect. But they contribute to what one might call the Grapes of Wrath syndrome, in which a sensitive, sincere play about suffering is wrecked rather than enhanced by the sheer quality and cost of the production.

In On the Open Road, the problem is compounded by the fact that Tesich’s script seems to come not from real experience but from intellectual conceit. The running gag about Angel rattling off the birth and death dates of philosophers is quite funny–“Immanuel Kant, 1724-1804,” he dutifully proclaims as he hangs from his crucifixion girder at the end of the play–but Angel’s understanding seems at about the same level as Tesich’s. “A starry night above me and a moral law within me,” says Al, quoting Kant as he approaches death; shortly afterward the cyclorama behind the actors blossoms with beautiful stars. But instead of a starry night and a moral law, all On the Open Road offers is a technically slick projection and a glib, preachy script.

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