Sunday, March 17, 2013

'The Mound Builders' Is Defeated By An Insipid Production

Will Rogers as Chad Jasker and Lisa Joyce and Dr. Jean Loggins in The Mound Builders

Has the Signature Theatre fumbled the ball?

After last year’s mostly successful opening season at its new Frank Gehry-designed home  (first-rate productions of three works by featured playwright Athol Fugard, plus an equally powerful presentation of Edward Albee's undervalued 'The Lady From Dubuque'), the organization seems to have hit a wall.

This year started promisingly with a sublime mounting of August Wilson's The Piano Lesson, but since then, we’ve seen little to celebrate.  Sam Shepard's Heartless, and the two plays by Henry David Hwang—Golden Child and The Dance and the Railroad—have received tepid productions, and the third, Kung Fu, won’t be ready for viewing until next season, when the company will be abandoning altogether its core mission of spotlighting a single playwright.  (I haven't seen Old Hats, so I cannot comment on it.)

And now we have on view a frustratingly tedious production of Lanford Wilson’s The Mound Builders, a challenging play in the best of circumstances.  Here, unfortunately, the circumstances include uninspired directing, generally mediocre performances, and an insipid set. 

Wilson, who is far better represented by the engaging production of Talley’s Folly at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre, wrote The Mound Builders a decade earlier than the better-known romantic comedy—though it is not an early work, which might have explained the clumsy crafting of the plot and the often leaden dialog.

This is a story that unfolds slowly, ostensibly held together by a narrator recalling his experience as an archeologist at a pre-Columbian excavation site that is about to be flooded out by a man-made lake aimed at turning the area into a resort destination.   The play combines esoteric archeological context with the various dramas that unfold among the members of the visiting team, and a growing conflict with the owner of the property on which the site is located. 

For about the first thirty minutes, we are exposed to all of the characters:  the narrator Professor August Howe; his wife Cynthia; their daughter Kirsten; Dan and Jean Loggins (he’s an archeologist; she’s an ob-gyn); Howe’s alcoholic novelist sister Delia; and Chad Jasker, the high-strung and unstable owner of the ramshackle house in which they are all staying during the dig. 

As directed by Jo Bonney, the cast members rush their lines and pretty much shout their way through the lengthy and difficult-to-follow exposition—as if rushing and shouting will serve to get us through the boring stuff.  It is difficult to figure out who is who, and even at intermission theatergoers around me were debating which characters were siblings and which were married to one another.  For my part, I took notes and drew arrows on the program in order to help me keep the relationships straight. 

All of this is unfortunate.  While The Mound Builders is unlikely ever to be viewed as a Wilson treasure, there are some interesting elements, including an air of growing danger that pervades the second act, and occasional pockets of smart dialog.  I was particular taken with a story told by an intoxicated Dan (well-performed by Zachary Booth), as well as some of the wisecracks and intellectual musings by Delia (Danielle Skraastad), such as the notion of eyes being projectors of images rather than receivers of them.  Unfortunately, there are not enough of these high spots, and, frankly, most of the cast is not at the top of their game here.

Wilson has been compared with Tennessee Williams, though I don’t see much of the latter’s poetry in Wilson.  The playwrights I am most reminded of are Sam Shepard and Harold Pinter, both of whose work can only come to life with the right director and the right set of actors who can capture the tension and rhythms in their work. 

So, even though The Mound Builders is problematic, I would be interested in seeing what a more visionary director and a top-notch cast could do with it.  Think  “Indiana Jones meets Sartre.” Now there's an image for your eyes to project!

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