The Young Man From Atlanta

Goodman Theatre

Sidney Bechet Killed a Man

Victory Gardens Theater

By Albert Williams

Will Kidder and Phil Litwin have a lot in common. The protagonists of two high-profile new plays in town, they not only believe in the American dream but seem to embody it.

Will, the central character in Horton Foote’s The Young Man From Atlanta, is a highly paid executive with a wholesale grocery firm in 1950 Houston–“the finest city in the greatest country in the world,” he crows. His propensity for superlatives, for “the best” and “the biggest,” is echoed in Stuart Flack’s Sidney Bechet Killed a Man: Phil, a multimillionaire doctor in 1990s Chicago, is the top man in his field. These eminent workaholics, both in their 60s, glory in their success. They boast of their competitive drive and stamina, exulting in the fact that their money comes from work they’re proud of: a 40-year career building up a company for Will, a lifetime of lifesaving for Phil. Having risen from humble beginnings–Will comes from dirt-poor country folk, Phil from a working-class Jewish family in West Rogers Park–they’re confident in the wealth they’ve amassed and pleased with their devoted wives and fine grown-up children.

In other words, these guys are in serious denial and headed for a fall. After all, what playwright these days would write about an old white man who actually gets what he wants? These writers may be decades apart in age and experience–at 81, Foote is a veteran of the “golden age” of television drama, while the thirtysomething Flack is a communications executive who writes plays as a sideline–and their styles may be as different as their levels of skill. But their similar purposes are predictable: to make individual domestic crises–financial ruin, marital discord, and the general unraveling of well-ordered lives–symbolize the delusion and deception that are the flip side of the idealistic optimism said to characterize the American spirit.

Foote’s is the more old-fashioned of the two pieces. A 1995 Pulitzer Prize winner headed for Broadway, The Young Man From Atlanta is as well made as its impressively realistic setting at the Goodman–designer Tom Lynch’s sprawling living room, complete with stone-walled hearth–and as carefully arranged as the two strands of pearls with which costumer David C. Woolard has adorned the matronly neck of Lily Dale, Will’s wife. It charts, touchingly but a little too neatly, the way the Kidders respond to a series of spiritual and financial misfortunes: the unexplained suicide of their 37-year-old son, Will’s layoff from his job and subsequent heart attack, and Lily Dale’s squandering of her savings on her dead son’s ex-roommate, the young Atlantan of the title.

Randy, the out-of-towner, is never seen because Will consistently rebuffs his attempts to pay a call on his dead friend’s parents, for reasons only partly clarified at the end of this two-hour one-act. But the offstage Randy colors much of the action: Will, abruptly fired so his job can be assigned to his lower-paid young assistant, hopes to fall back on Lily’s savings–thousands of dollars he’s given her over the years–only to learn she’s “loaned” it to Randy, a fountain of hard-luck stories. The money aside, Randy represents to Will his perceived failure as a father, reflected in his son’s death (which Lily Dale insists was an accident) and mysterious lifestyle. (The implication of secret, guilt-ridden homosexuality is never addressed–either Will can’t bring himself to face it or Foote is too embarrassed to admit falling back on Tennessee Williams’s and Robert Anderson’s leftovers.)

In Foote’s resolution of the situation Will is humbled but strengthened, bent but unbroken, his love and need for Lily Dale–and hers for him–tested and reaffirmed. By contrast Sidney Bechet Killed a Man takes its protagonist to the breaking point and beyond, signaling disaster from the first of its many monologues. A cardiac surgeon whose clients range from Frank Sinatra to Arab royalty, Phil boasts of his intense powers of concentration, which he likens to the “unbroken line” of melody in the music of Sidney Bechet, the great jazz saxophone and clarinet soloist whom Phil, himself an amateur clarinetist, idolizes. (Bechet’s recordings, with their unique mixture of trembling sweetness and steely strength, frame each of the play’s two acts.) But despite the air of confidence he projects, Phil is bothered by a recurring dream in which all 21,000 of his patients around the globe have heart attacks simultaneously, in a “single synchronized spasm.” Soon after telling us of this nightmare, Phil discovers that his credit cards are frozen–the first sign that his investments in the currency market have gone awry, leaving him with a net worth of minus $50 million. The full extent of the disaster is finally revealed by Phil’s longtime friend and attorney, Marcel, the man responsible for managing Phil’s money–and the husband of Claire, with whom Phil has carried on an affair for 20 years. Suddenly the tightly controlled Phil snaps, murdering Marcel in what he calls one of “those bouts of irrationality [in which] we improvise and something totally new and wonderful comes into being.”

The part of the play leading up to Marcel’s murder is fairly interesting stuff–somewhat contrived but darkly funny and brimming with ideas and images as Flack juggles monologues and dialogue scenes, including a fantasy encounter between Phil and his med-school cadaver that recalls Frankenstein’s debates with his creature in Mary Shelley’s novel. But once Marcel is dead the play falls apart, because Flack backpedals instead of moving the action forward: the characters (including a back-from-the-dead Marcel) explain themselves in a jumble of confessional monologues. The explanations are as unnecessary as they are relentless; once we’ve learned about Phil and Claire, we don’t need to be told that his financial ruin is Marcel’s revenge or that Phil’s wronged wife Emily hides a deep well of rage behind her oh-so-polite demeanor. By the time Phil commits suicide–engaging in a hallucinatory chat with Sidney Bechet as he slips into a drug-induced coma–his compulsive self-justifications have eliminated any sympathy we might have had for him and trivialized any universality his tragedy might have conveyed. Sidney Bechet’s only moral message is: never put your money in the hands of a friend if you’re screwing his wife.

Flack’s overreliance on explanation at the expense of subtext is the mistake of a novice. The seasoned Foote knows that what characters don’t say shapes them as much as what they do say. The Young Man From Atlanta conveys the flow of daily life through Foote’s shrewd balance of significant and trivial conversations, his juxtaposition of speech and silence. This lifelike ebb and flow gives the actors a chance to inhabit the characters rather than just portray them–and gives the audience a chance to process what they’ve witnessed, gradually coming to understand Will and Lily Dale rather than being told what to think. Foote also chooses to explain some but not all of the story’s mysteries, leaving key ambiguities unresolved: food for thought on the audience’s way home. Every word in Sidney Bechet Killed a Man is Fraught With Meaning, and every question is unambiguously answered–so there’s no chance for us to make the play part of our lives. We’re distanced from Phil, Emily, and Marcel by their tedious talk-show self-absorption, and Flack’s often sophomoric philosophizing about control versus passion doesn’t help. Foote draws us into the characters of Will and Lily Dale by having them focus on other people and on events around them.

Of course, for a playwright to leave so much up to the performers is a great act of trust–one well rewarded in Robert Falls’s sensitive staging, which stars two of American theater’s best actors, Rip Torn and Shirley Knight. Though both–Torn in particular–need to grow into their roles a bit, they bring to the Goodman stage the crucial sense of being rather than playing Will and Lily Dale. Consummate pros, they make the quiet moments–Lily Dale fighting back tears as she sings the lullaby she used to croon to her baby son, Will wearily hoisting his legs over the arms of a couch as he lies down for a nap–as telling as their powerful speeches, which are beautifully phrased for pitch, breath, and dynamics yet never sound artificial. Equally believable performances come from the excellent supporting ensemble–most notably William Biff McGuire as Lily Dale’s stepfather. This grand old actor can do more with a slight wag of a single finger than many others can with pages and pages of script; a scene where he’s caught between Will and Lily Dale, who’ve both told him their problems while lying to each other, is deliciously sad and funny at once.

Sandy Shinner’s capable cast in Sidney Bechet Killed a Man have little chance to breathe a similar fullness into their characters. Jack McLaughlin-Gray labors mightily to deliver Phil’s torrents of text in a way that suggests a rational man trying to understand his mounting emotion, but he ends up signaling the character’s crisis rather than living it, and Deanna Dunagan and John Judd are similarly hamstrung by the roles of Emily and Marcel. A.C. Smith and Kirsten Daurelio have nicely quirky moments in several brief minor parts. But the most important supporting character never appears: Claire, Marcel’s unfaithful wife. Where Randy’s nonappearance is an element of the mystery in The Young Man From Atlanta, Claire’s absence feels like Flack simply didn’t know how to deal with her–or else he was trying to keep the payroll down. Either way, it’s a serious flaw, but one easily rectified in the rewrite the play needs if it’s to have any successful life beyond this premature premiere.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): The Young Man From Atlanta photo by Liz Lauren / Sidney Bechet Killed a Man photo by Jenifer Girard.