Goodman Theatre

English playwright Peter Nichols, better known for A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, wrote Passion Play. It’s the story of a middle-class, middle-aged couple whose marriage unravels when the husband’s middle-life crisis leads him into adultery. The Goodman’s choice of this drama seems to reflect their estimation of, and respect for, their middle-income season-ticket holders. And, about the most superficial observation that can be made about Passion Play is that it lacks passion.

Sure, there’s a modest degree of titillation–partial nudity (60 seconds’ worth, max), lots of underwear, and a scene where the husband actually lies down on the sofa with his girlfriend as the lights fade tastefully to black–but this is only the spoor of a passion that has limped off somewhere else to die. What’s more, this titillation is unilateral: there’s no male nudity. But all this is beside the point, since the point is not passion, but the complications, such as deceit and disillusionment, that are the offspring of a passion deferred beyond its prime. Not to mention guilt, which penetrates deeper than sexual gratification, and lasts a lot longer too.

To expose these complications, Peter Nichols provides the husband and wife, James and Eleanor, with, well, not exactly alter egos, but ids, named Jim and Nell. Anyway, Jim and Nell have full license to say what goes on in James and Nell’s heads. This device allows for a good deal of comic interjection, particularly in the first act, when Jim has lines like, “Her tongue has been in my mouth.” In the second act, which is dreadfully serious, things get confused as all four characters start talking to each other, in various combinations, for no apparent reason except that the playwright was perhaps making an unnecessarily baroque metaphor of a marriage in chaos. More likely, Nichols sensed his dramatic gimmick wasn’t panning out, and so took refuge in the inscrutability of artsiness.

James and Eleanor are pretty artsy themselves. He’s a modern-art restorer (which is a joke in itself) and she’s a classical vocalist. Other than the obvious yin-yang symbolism here, I took these professions to represent people who could not create but only skillfully reproduce other people’s art. Indeed, their “perfect marriage” of 25 years shows signs of being an unacknowledged sham even before James’s infidelity. Now, stepping ankle deep into the symbolism, we have Jim and Nell, who are younger, more vital, more honest, and in every way what James and Eleanor are unable to be except in the solitude of their thoughts. Then there’s Kate: the other woman, the cupcake, the man-eater. Kate’s a photographer with a two-dimensional personality and a hair-trigger sexuality. And, oh yeah, there’s Eleanor’s friend, Agnes, whose sole function is to let the cat out of the bag.

Since the cat is unbagged in the first act, most of the play concerns James’s maneuvering between bouts of reconciliation and backsliding. He wants to have his cupcake and eat it too. With the bases thus loaded, Eleanor bangs in a grand slam of dramatic mediocrity by swallowing a bottle of sleeping pills in an aborted suicide attempt. The play anticlimactically concludes with James and Eleanor preparing to receive Christmas guests into their humble, spacious loft, as it becomes apparent that both of them are dead inside, numbed beyond passion, heartbreak, or recovery, and simply unable to do anything about it.

The irritating thing about James is that his problem doesn’t nudge him toward any self-realization. He doesn’t want to know any more about himself. And, really, what’s to know? He feels his guilt and anxiety are imposed on him by Eleanor; she’s the problem. Plainly, James is a dickhead who lacks testicularity. And Eleanor’s only real problem is her failure to follow through on her threat to leave James if he ever plays house with Kate again. Kate, of course, doesn’t have any problems. She can take it or leave it and there’s no law against that.

So, why go see a play about adultery when you can go out and commit it in the flesh? Passion Play offers no catharsis, and makes no pretensions, like so many stupid magazines do, of showing us how to fit the round peg of passion into the square hole of love. What Passion Play does is to portray the death of passion. It may strike many as a dressed-up soap opera, and, well, I can see that. But I also sense a more profound element of despair, which Nichols flirts with but doesn’t quite consummate. Maybe that’s Nichols’s inability to face the enormity of irretrievable emotional loss. So he defends himself against potential sappiness with dramatic gizmos and witty repartee. And I am unmoved, unlike the simple way that I’m always moved by the B.B. King classic, “The Thrill Is Gone.”

Stephen Markle, as Jim, gives far and away the best performance. I’ve seen Markle in Houston as Cyrano and in Atlanta in a southern comedy of manners; here he proves to be an actor whose sense of play and ability to inhabit a drama have only increased with age. In contrast, David Darlow (as James) manages only the mannered husk of a character. I feel the same two ways about Nell (played by Janice St. John) and Eleanor (Holland Taylor), respectively. St. John’s performance has bite and self-assurance, and though Taylor’s subtle and accomplished enough in her way, she strikes me as a veteran of large Equity stages whose performance boils down to knowing how to shout and seem like she’s talking. Seanna McKenna (as Kate) seems altogether miscast, and tries to make up for it with the hard-sell sex appeal of a PR agent who’s very glad to meet you. As for the ensemble, there’s no chemistry whatsoever, whether sexual, emotional, or psychological.

Reflecting on the acting, it occurred to me that director Frank Galati could have been making an incredibly deft, Marshall McLuhan-esque statement about passion being significant only in its absence. That would explain such shallow characterizations in the three lead roles, and the lack of chemistry. But I doubt it. This doesn’t come off as a deliberate interpretation. More like an oversight.

Galati’s strength in Passion Play is more a matter of staging than actor direction. His timing is masterful, both in the fluid overlapping of scenes and in the way Jim and Nell mix their subtext in with James and Eleanor’s dialogue. But this is just a professional trick in comparison with Galati’s sometimes astounding stage pictures. For instance, the scene I mentioned earlier, where James climbs on top of Kate on the sofa. Playing in the background is a radio broadcast of Eleanor singing Verdi’s Requiem–that much is Nichols’s work. But as the lights fade to black, one light is left on, the harsh fluorescent of the upstairs bathroom light. And, in the illuminated doorway, all you can see is the toilet. Now that’s adultery! Galati isn’t always as precise as this. He periodically crowds the stage with an additional ten actors, who amount to little more than warm scenery and are often just plain distracting. The scope of this six-character play doesn’t justify Galati’s directorial overkill. Give that man an opera.

Yet, for all the scenery, and manpower, and, well, money that the Goodman has lavished on Passion Play, it’s not an opera. It’s a small play about a small-time adultery. So, if you’ve done more than covet your neighbor’s wife (or husband), and you hate yourself, and you’re tired of it, Passion Play is simply there to remind you of what you’re missing.

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