American Divine

Dolphinback Theatre Company

at the Theatre Building

Let me say at the outset that American Divine, Dolphinback Theatre Company’s three-evening cycle of short plays by Joe Pintauro, is one of the best-acted and highest-quality non-Equity shows I’ve seen in off-Loop theater. Barely two years old, this ensemble displays a rare balance of technique and intuition, of overall vision and attention to detail; even with this ambitious work’s structural flaws, it sets a standard of excellence that will challenge every other nonunion troupe in town. In almost every one of the 26 scripts that comprise this five-hour trilogy, the cast, directors, and designers exhibit a nearly unerring sense of pacing, image, vocal tone, and emotional nuance.

The 21 actors–7 in each of the three programs, about a third of them Dolphinback members–have a firm grasp of their multiple characters. The regional accents are almost always convincing, as is the mime used to create a situation on a nearly bare stage: when an actor “sees” a photograph on an invisible wall or “talks” to his pet bird through a hooded cage, the verisimilitude of the moment is flawless. More important, the actors all have a thorough understanding of their characters’ conscious and unconscious motivations, as well as of the poetic devices Pintauro uses to link the plays thematically: they’re true to the work as literature as well as psychological drama. Sitting through three intermissionless plays–for a total of nearly eight hours including breaks–this ever-critical critic kept waiting for the performances to falter. They never did. Though I have reservations about the project’s scope, the last time I remember seeing such consistently well done non-Equity work was in Under Milk Wood at Cafe Voltaire several seasons back.

Even the flaw in the show’s concept is impressive. When the Dolphinbacks discovered Plays by Joe Pintauro, a now-out-of-print collection of short scripts originally workshopped in the mid-80s at New York’s Circle Repertory Company but never performed publicly, they could have done the smart thing and selected a dozen or so of the best pieces; instead, struck by the intuitive rather than strategic way that images and ideas run through the scripts, they undertook the entire canon. Three directors–Matt Tauber (a non-Dolphinback who also served as executive producer) and company members KellyAnn Corcoran and Jemal Diamond–eventually trimmed a little of the material and asked Pintauro for new texts to firm up the narrative through lines they were seeking. The result is quite an achievement just in terms of time, energy, and money–let alone the beauty of the performances.

If only they hadn’t called it American Divine and proclaimed it in their press release an “epic trilogy…[that] explores issues of mortality, transcendence and the location of divinity in America as it approaches the end of a ragged century.” The florid hype and the title inevitably suggest Angels in America, Tony Kushner’s multipart millennial drama about heavenly visitations in the age of AIDS and apocalypse. Now that’s an epic, complete with recurring characters intruding on one another’s story lines and an unapologetic embrace of the fantastical. Pintauro, by contrast, is a miniaturist; the best scripts here are intimate, quietly epiphanic character sketches. When Kushner says an angel has arrived, you can believe it; when Pintauro says so, the “angel” is more likely to be a pill popper’s drug-induced hallucination or a pet bird abandoned by its all-too-human owner. Pintauro is no Kushner imitator, though Dolphinback’s publicity inadvertently suggests otherwise.

But when a non-Equity acting company does eventually present Angels in America, it should only be as good as this show. Though American Divine’s sweeping approach mutes some of its effect, the fine writing and marvelous acting make all three parts worth an audience’s attention. The strongest is the one directed by Tauber, “The Spirit,” in part because its attempt to establish a narrative link among its nine plays is the most convincing. Framed by two pieces about a dying AIDS patient and his extended family, “The Spirit” evokes flight in recurrent images, both textual references–to birds, airplanes, and dreams of flying–and visual touches such as bird pictures on a hooker’s bathrobe and an airplanelike sculpture hanging from an artist’s ceiling. Though flight serves as a metaphor for death and transcendence, “The Spirit” also explores the memories and sorrow experienced by those left behind. In Two Eclairs an artist’s wife brings home a pair of desserts to celebrate the departure of her teenage sister, who shares the loft–and is stunned to learn that her husband and sister are having an affair (“She’s an angel,” the husband explains); this is the death of a marriage. In Men Without Wives a macho father and his gentle son, both widowers, seek a common understanding; in Soft Dude the relationship between a whore who can’t accept love except as sex and her boyfriend, who’s impotent unless he’s paying for sex, dies–and their angry conversation reveals the childhood abuses that programmed them so dysfunctionally. And Rosen’s Son, the best script of the bunch, is a powerful encounter between an elderly Jew, whose gay son has died of AIDS, and the son’s lover, now trying to make a new life with a new man. Threatening to blow his brains out on the survivor’s dinner table, the old man forces his “other son” to submit to grief rather than deny it–a delayed ritual of leave-taking.

Unfortunately, Tauber undermines the climactic force of Rosen’s Son by capping “The Spirit” with a dreamlike dance between the dead AIDS patient and the widow of Pablo Neruda, whose earlier monologue is an eloquent but gratuitous piece of new material Pintauro created for this production. Similarly, the other two programs achieve powerful effects with movingly written, superbly played sequences, then dampen the effect with unnecessary flourishes that attempt to unify the short plays. It’s like taking Joyce’s Dubliners and trying to turn it into Ulysses: it isn’t necessary, and it doesn’t work. In “The Prodigal,” for instance, director Corcoran explores themes of homecoming and reconciliation, but too many of the scripts are of lesser quality. None of them is actually bad–Pintauro’s always a skillful writer–but only two pieces, both toward the evening’s end, are really first-rate: Rules of Love is a weirdly comic sketch about a woman who confesses her affair with a Catholic priest to the priest himself, and Dirty Talk is an intensely sexual psychodrama about an after-hours assignation at a roadside tavern between the barkeeper and a very strange young woman. Stunningly played by Jeff Charlton and Marie Vlasin, the scene suffers only slightly from the fact that the two actors are both young (the script requires a wider age difference); this sequence alone is worth the price of admission, just as Rosen’s Son by itself is enough to recommend “The Spirit.”

The high points of “The Passover,” whose playlets revolve around familial dinners and fear of death, take place in the middle. Rex is an absurdly funny sketch about a PC Soho couple who must break from their vegetarian regimen to eat a pheasant–because the wife accidentally ran over it with her car. The real grabber here, though, is Seymour in the Very Heart of Winter, a beautifully written portrait of an aging, memory-obsessed actress and the working-class chauffeur who loves her. Intentionally or not, it seems a tribute to Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire: the actress is named Vivienne (recalling Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois), and she eulogizes her failed marriage to a husband she didn’t know was gay until she spotted him with a boyfriend (just as Blanche did). Moreover the plainspoken, simple-hearted chauffeur, like Blanche’s Mitch, adores Vivienne but resents her hauteur. Notwithstanding its resemblance to Williams, it’s an exquisite piece of writing; Melanie Dix is haunting as Vivienne, and Ian Christopher heartbreaking as the lovelorn chauffeur. He has an impressive range: he’s hilarious as the appalled artist in Rex and eerily silent as a mute street person in the spooky Bird of Ill Omen.

Christopher isn’t the only actor who gets to show off his versatility. Charlton’s sexually ensnared bartender in Dirty Talk is strikingly different from his superficially glib gay man in Uncle Chick, also in “The Prodigal.” Tom Gottlieb deftly combines comedy and pathos as the impotent title character in Soft Dude, then plumbs the depths of pain as the old man in Rosen’s Son. But every actor in American Divine shines; this is ensemble work at its finest, well supported by the simple but evocative contributions of designers Geoffrey M. Curley (set), Joel Moritz (lights), Raymond Gabica Jr. (costumes), and Joe Cerqua (music and sound). If Dolphinback had compressed the best of Pintauro’s playlets into one or perhaps two programs, American Divine would be a masterpiece. As it is, it’s simply superb.