Touchstone Theatre


Black Ensemble

Touchstone Theatre’s production of Slow Dance on the Killing Ground provides a textbook example of why a theater company should remain faithful to the original words of a playwright. The company veers away from William Hanley’s script only on a couple of occasions, but that changes the play, muddling its meaning. Rather than being a play about truths hidden beneath lies, it becomes a play in which truths and lies are indistinguishable.

Hanley’s much-praised 1964 script is structured like a whodunit, so the audience has to try to deduce what ails the three troubled characters. On a warm spring night in Brooklyn a halting, apathetic European immigrant named Glas is getting set to close up his soda fountain and candy shop when Randall, a spastically flamboyant African American teenage genius, barges in seeking shelter from the law. Hanley gives us initially satisfying answers to the two questions immediately on our minds: Why is Glas so dour? And what’s making Randall run? He informs us that Glas was once a disillusioned German communist who was tortured in a concentration camp for his political beliefs and Randall is an unloved child who’s committed some manner of horrible crime. Then he introduces Rosie, a miserable young Jewish college student who’s also running from something.

More complicated truths reveal themselves as the play wears on. Rosie’s angst is the result of an unwanted pregnancy, which she’s come to this seedy section of Brooklyn to terminate. Randall has murdered his mother, a prostitute, and the police are hot on his trail. And Glas wasn’t in a concentration camp; he deserted his Jewish wife and child and wound up collaborating with the Nazis, later adopting the story of a Holocaust victim and even having a number tattooed on his arm. Near the play’s end Hanley allows his three characters, all of whom he seems to regard as victims, to share a moment of peaceful, solemn companionship: just before the blackout Glas lights a candle for the three, whose struggles led them to seek refuge in this candy shop, whose walls block out the dangers of the outside world, the “killing ground.”

Slow Dance on the Killing Ground is a troublesome play, suffering from a dated and simplistic morality and a lack of credibility. Hanley’s tendency to equate the suffering of Holocaust victims and African Americans with the plight of the fetus Rosie plans to abort is specious and facile. And the chance meeting of these three characters is the sort of event that can only occur in a play. Glas and Randall ring false from the beginning, and even after they’ve dropped their facades they don’t seem trustworthy. Glas’s story of trying to stay true to his communist beliefs while transporting Jews in cattle cars to their deaths simply doesn’t make sense.

This straining of believability is further complicated by Touchstone Theatre’s production, which doesn’t seem to have decided what’s true and what’s false in the play. The acting is exceedingly good, especially Eileen Niccolai as the razor-sharp, wisecracking Rosie. John Reinhardt’s Glas has an appropriately cynical and world-weary edge, but his accent doesn’t sound the least bit German; if anything, it has a songsong lilt that sounds decidedly Yiddish. The blurring of Glas’s ethnicity allows the audience to ponder all kinds of Man in the Glass Booth questions (“Maybe he’s Jewish after all and just feels guilty that he survived”), but they don’t hold up under intense scrutiny and surely weren’t dictated by Hanley’s script. Moreover, his ambiguous identity raises doubts about the statements of all three characters. When Randall reveals in a chillingly cathartic confession that he murdered his mother (an eerie performance by the energetic but occasionally grating Byron Stewart), he could well be lying.

Director Jonathan Wilson also makes a peculiar choice at the end of the play. In Hanley’s script the three characters stand back to back as Glas lights the memorial candle, creating an air of sanctity and safety apart from the outside world. In Wilson’s version Randall has already bolted out the door, creating an awkward moment between Glas and Rosie rather than an almost religious one between the three of them. Instead of exploring the links between the three characters, as Hanley clearly intended, Wilson focuses our attention on the dangers that await Randall, giving the conclusion a seriously diminished sense of closure. This ending raises even more questions for which Touchstone doesn’t seem to have answers.

Hearts & Times, Jackie Taylor’s musical adaptation of Ross Talarico’s collection of oral histories for the Black Ensemble Theater, demonstrates the power a true, unembellished story can have on an audience. Culled from stories written by a group of senior citizens in a creative writing class taught by Talarico, accompanied by a series of beautifully performed catchy songs, Hearts & Times is a moving experience.

Here one gets a wonderous feeling of sitting around a campfire listening to a master storyteller or of curling up beside a wise grandparent. The simple stories of the joy of receiving a new pair of shoes, the giddy ecstasy of first love, or the heartbreak of having to give up a prize silver dollar have an uncommon ring of truth. The writings of these previously unpublished storytellers are as affecting and well wrought as the works of more accomplished and highly reputed authors. I’d rather listen to Sarah McClellan’s tale of ill-fated love, A Ballad of Rain, a hundred times than sit through Driving Miss Daisy again.

Taylor’s songs display a wide variety of moods and styles, ranging from powerful gospel numbers to infectious pop hooks to a loosey-goosey honky-tonk shuffle. The only trouble comes about two-thirds of the way through, when the six talented members of the ensemble stop telling stories in a natural way and begin to imitate old folks sitting around a nursing home reminiscing. The characterizations aren’t as disrespectful as one might think, though Taylor did work in a few cheap impotence jokes. But they turn something that’s been enjoyable and genuine into something forced and phony. The stories become secondary to the acting, overwhelming the beauty and simplicity of the tales Talarico collected.