Last May, when I reviewed Brett Neveu’s The Go, I said its quiet, unadorned, working-class realism reminded me of the early live television dramas, like Paddy Chayevsky’s Marty. With American Dead, Neveu has moved beyond mere reminiscence. Here he’s mastered and revived the thing itself, full out. There were times–especially when Michelle Habeck’s lights took on a certain washed-out bluish cast–that I could have sworn this world-premiere American Theater Company production was being unreeled from an old kinescope recording.
You’d think that a play–not to say a playwright–that embraces obsolescence as tenaciously as this one does would lack something in the way of immediacy. And yet for all its redolence of Genres Past, American Dead is anything but dead. Haunted, yes, but far from dead: an unexpectedly powerful throwback. Like a dinosaur out of Jurassic Park, it’s too anachronistic to be believed but entirely too vivid to reject.
Neveu’s material is well suited to the socially conscious, militantly intimate sort of drama that Chayevsky and an infant television technology favored. Set in a small midwestern town that’s getting smaller by the day as people drift away, businesses close down, and buildings go to seed, the play centers on a broken soul named Lewie. A former housepainter, Lewie was probably always an amiably marginal kind of guy; he lost whatever equilibrium he had, however, when his sister, Grace, and a young clerk named Mark were gunned down during a robbery at the local grocery store. Now Lewie does odd jobs, drinks too much beer, and spends his nights roaming the literal ruins of his past–his bulldozed family home, the empty hulk of his high school–as he communes with the ghosts of the two victims.
Once upon a time a man like Lewie would have been looked after by the extended family of the community, and what’s left of Lewie’s community attempts to do just that. The slightly dotty tavern owner, Bill, treats Lewie like a favorite grandson, slipping him the extra beers he knows he shouldn’t have. Alan, the sheriff, is sterner, demanding that Lewie lay off the booze and stay out of those rickety old abandoned buildings. Lewie’s former brother-in-law, Doug, makes sure he’s fed. But even this tenuous safety net is falling apart. Lewie’s crisis comes as Doug and his new wife prepare to move to another town, five hours away, where they have jobs lined up.
The point is absolutely clear: as much as Grace and Mark, Lewie and his town are American dead. And so, in their ways, are Alan and Bill. And so, too, is Dennis, an ex-con who makes the mistake of stopping in at Bill’s tavern. And so, even, is Dennis’s son in a reformatory. This is a blasted landscape–as lifeless as the moon (President Bush might want to send some manned missions here), as extinct as dinosaurs.
That this point comes across so clearly without getting mucked up in sentiment and self-righteousness, as a pure product of the dramatic situation, is in large part a testament to Neveu’s growing skill. Evidently determined to be the new bard of the midwestern reality, Neveu writes prolifically, and this seems to me to be his best work yet. Not only has he thoroughly absorbed everything Chayevsky might have had to teach him, he’s figured out what to leave alone. Specifically, he doesn’t succumb to melodrama. There’s no equivalent of Marty’s famous “ugly man” speech in American Dead. In fact, there’s nothing at all that might be construed as self-consciously dramatic. Even the ghosts are low-key. Neveu practices an aesthetic of diffidence and digression. True midwesterners, his characters reach what they have to say by oblique routes through the trivial and the commonplace–assuming they get there at all. This makes for a peculiarly lovely, funny poetry at times, though it may deny Neveu some of the resources he’ll need when he gets ready to write a really great play.
The production, directed by Edward Sobel, is as good as it can possibly be. Understated, sure-footed, gritty and sweet. Marty Higginbotham’s Alan is a bully with a heart of gold, pained equally by the inevitability of his situation as sheriff of a dead town and by the fantasy that he can somehow do something about it. John Mohrlein’s Bill is a strange comic masterpiece: old man as old biddy, the mother hen at the last bar on earth. Danny McCarthy’s Doug is wonderful to watch in his interactions with the increasingly unstable Lewie–by turns guarded and generous, pitying and possessed of a genuine affection for his crazy brother-in-law.
But in the end it’s James Leaming’s show. Leaming’s Lewie is astounding in its portrayal of a handyman, as doomed as Oedipus. His slow, certain subsidence is heartbreaking–not least of all because Leaming is able to enrich it with tokens of the amiably marginal guy Lewie would’ve been quite happy to be if everything else hadn’t happened instead.