Theatre of the Reconstruction

at the Garage

Larry Darrell was one of the original slackers. Long before it became the prerogative of self-aggrandizing rock stars and junior-year-abroad students to travel east with hopes of attaining spiritual fulfillment, Larry, the hero of W. Somerset Maugham’s novel The Razor’s Edge, was turning his back on his generation and its values to work in the coal mines of France and seek knowledge from mystical sages in India.

Maugham paints Larry’s portrait against a flat backdrop of petty, materialistic characters, foils apparently based on individuals the novelist actually encountered in Chicago after World War I. Isabel Bradley is Larry’s spoiled, petulant fiancee, who sees happiness in terms of golf outings, horseback rides, and bellies full of children. Gray Maturin, Isabel’s millionaire suitor, has about as much personality as his unfortunate first name would indicate. Elliott Templeton, Isabel’s snobbish uncle, an American like Henry James obsessed with becoming European, disapproves of Larry. Sophie MacDonald is a tragic and vulnerable young woman who turns to drink. And then there’s the meddlesome Maugham himself, who is both the narrator and a character in the novel.

Maugham’s book tracks the course of these and other characters. Larry, dissatisfied with what America has to offer him after he returns from World War I, goes off to France and then to India. Isabel, unwilling to live on the small amount of money Larry has saved up, marries Gray Maturin instead, and he’s ruined by the crash of ’29. Sophie MacDonald becomes a woman of easy virtue in France. Larry pops in and out of all these characters’ lives, offering them strength and a chance for salvation.

The problem, as many critics observed when the book first came out in 1944, is that it’s very difficult to sympathize with any of these characters, who are shallow and vain and seem to be designed solely to show off Larry’s goodness. Larry himself, virtuous and self-sacrificing, is a spewing fountain of wisdom and philosophy. He barely seems human.

Even though Larry only appears from time to time, returning every few years to tell of his adventures in the quest for knowledge, his effect on all the characters is indelible. Maugham wants to show how, even when absent, an individual exerts a strong influence on other people’s lives. Larry’s personality has an effect, Maugham suggests, like that of a pebble tossed into a pond, causing ripple after ripple after ripple in the people around him.

In Theatre of the Reconstruction’s all-too-faithful production of The Razor’s Edge, adapted and directed by Peggy Dunne, there is no life in the pond where Larry the pebble is tossed. As in the novel, the lives Larry touches are trivial and dull. There are long-winded discussions of golf and fancy balls and bond trading–which certainly contrast with Larry’s dissertations on Eastern philosophy, but this contrast alone is not particularly interesting dramatically. When the appalled Isabel visits Larry in his dingy pension in France and decides to break off their engagement, their dialogue is a sort of point/counterpoint debate, with material wealth facing off against spiritual growth. The odds are stacked heavily in spiritual growth’s favor.

The arguments are presented in such blatant black-and-white terms that they become ridiculous. “What is this going to lead to?” Isabel asks. “The acquisition of knowledge,” Larry responds ponderously. “It doesn’t sound very practical,” she says. Isabel also asks, “What do you expect to find?” Says Larry: “The answers to my questions.” True, the dialogue is taken straight from Maugham’s novel, but whether the words are Maugham’s or Dunne’s, they still go clunk when they come out of the actors’ mouths.

There is very little passion or emotion in this production: Dunne employs a style that’s long on monologues and narration and short on interaction. The actors are forced to give speeches staring out into space, at the audience, or worse, at another actor’s back. At times, the production seems less a play than a reader’s-theater exercise. This style is economical–it allows a large amount of information to be transmitted in a small amount of time–and Dunne executes it well, but it robs the audience of any emotional involvement with the characters. With so much ground to cover between Chicago and Paris and India, there’s no time leftover for relationships to grow. We know characters are in love with each other not because we see it but because Maugham tells us they are.

In the play as in the book, most of the important events occur offstage. We do not witness Larry’s soul-searching trip to India; we merely hear him tell Maugham about it in a voice-over. Similarly, other characters interpret and explain Larry’s decision to marry the alcoholic and possibly nymphomaniac Sophie. Yes, this method is faithful to the novel, but it also eliminates any number of potentially interesting scenes. Watching the progress of these characters through Maugham’s eyes is rather like watching a revisionist Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead written from the perspective of the windbag Polonius. There are interesting things going on, but they aren’t happening where we can see them.

As a result The Razor’s Edge becomes less a play about characters and more a play about ideas. And the well-worn philosophical ramblings of Larry Darrell are far too pedestrian to carry two and a half hours of theater. Perhaps when the novel came out, about the time World War II vets were returning, Larry’s disillusionment and mutterings about becoming one with the universe, uniting with the godhead, and liberating himself from the bondage of rebirth sounded intriguing. Today, however, Larry’s ramblings seem like nothing but drivel, fodder for Sting lyrics. These are not so much pebbles dropped subtly into water as they are huge rocks cracked over a skull.

Dunne’s adaptation does have some saving graces. Larry Smith’s excellent set, composed mainly of unpainted flats, uses a minimum of set pieces and levels and yet takes full advantage of the depth of the space. Christine Birt’s costumes stylishly capture the flavor of the period. Dunne’s staging, although it provides far too few opportunities for performers to interact, is polished and graceful.

Every member of the cast speaks with perfect diction and moves effortlessly through the space. And despite some occasional overplaying and some unfortunate French accents, the cast is generally good. Tim Decker is a genial if somewhat unctuous Maugham, far more sympathetic than the raving misogynist Maugham’s writings reveal him to be. Jerry Phelan’s Elliott Templeton is right on target, capturing both the grandeur and the tragic desperation of a man obsessed with a nobility he can never attain. Debbie Miller as Sophie MacDonald provides a good deal of depth and intelligence to a character who could easily have fallen into caricature. And faced with the rather daunting task of portraying a saint, Paul Tamney is an intelligent and likable Larry. Tamney has perfected the beatific grin of a man who’s found peace after a long spiritual journey.

Unfortunately, this journey is a futile one. Watching a play in which the moral lessons are so carefully set out from the beginning, the audience is left, like Larry Darrell, dissatisfied and searching for meaning.