Friday, February 5, 2010

The New Group Tells A LIE OF THE MIND

The New Group is presenting a moodily musical production of Sam Shepard’s “A Lie of the Mind” at The Acorn Theatre. That is not to say that it’s “a” musical. It is musical.

Human speech can be musical. This may depend on the speaker, the writer, or both. Tennessee Williams, for instance, is utterly rhythmic such that particularly accented vowel sounds aren’t necessary when playing his characters – it’s all about the rhythm. Sam Shepard has rhythm. He’s a morose son of a bitch, but fiercely truthful. He demands each of his characters speak some form of truth even when it’s inconvenient. Some can’t hack it and they crumble before us. Each of Shepard’s characters speaks his/her own truths, and he leaves it up to us, the listeners, to recognize which of those characters speaks “Truth” or is just plain wrong. Deluded. Stupid. Shepard is not … kind. He’s not kind to his characters. Why should he be. No one else is.

The house at the Acorn was full Wednesday night, and the players filled our senses with fascinating music and words, and characters riveting to watch. We had pleasure, too, in that we were watching not living those lives -- although my friend did recognize her parents’ non-conversations during a second act scene between Baylor & Meg.

Entering the theatre, we could see a set neatly a-clutter with brown things stacked and hanging, right side up, upside down, and sideways, cramming multiple lifetimes onto the empty stage. Lamps, model airplanes, suitcases, chests of drawers, old box television sets, bureaus, boxes, baubles, bangles and beads, all the accoutrements of a family homestead where nothing can be thrown away. No matter what is discarded from the front of the mind, it will remain at the back. Baggage elegantly arranged as hodgepodge, this production’s set is a work of art inseparable from its story. Once peopled, that setting by Derek McLane was alternately comfortable and claustrophobic, and always cold.

The play began with music by “Gaine” (a pair of brothers – how appropriate is that for a Sam Shepard play!) giving voice to found objects that aligned with the set. From where we sat on house right, we could see them, just, behind a stage left wall that sometimes hid a kitchen. Original music opened the scene in dim light where two men, on opposite sides of the stage, spoke into telephones. Jake, a frightening and just-enough-buff Alessandro Nivola, punched a pay phone, and Josh Hamilton as his brother Frankie drowsily responded to curt, only somewhat coherent ejaculations from Jake. Hamilton’s Frankie appeared fragile in this disturbing conversation and is clearly the sane -- or at least saner -- of the brothers.

We next see another brother as well as the subject of Jake and Frankie’s conversation — Jake’s wife Beth, beaten to brain trauma, bandaged in a hospital bed, and cared for by her brother Mike (Frank Whaley). Whaley is protective, capable, wild, determined, uncontrolled, and passionate, a regular guy who wigs out shrilly by the end of the play, largely because there’s no other way for him to be heard within the play’s two totally messed up families.
Sidebar -- It’s really difficult to use what I still consider “appropriate” language for a review when the subject is a Sam Shepard play. I searched the thesaurus, but it doesn’t list synonyms for ‘f--- ed up,’ although the dictionary includes the term, first defined in 1939, as “thoroughly confused, disordered, or damaged.” That’ll do.

The families of “A Lie of the Mind” are beyond help.

The broken sister (of Mike) /wife (of Jake), Beth is played by Marin Ireland. She’s remarkable, physically, vocally, and verbally. When she climbs the set in Jake’s imagination, I was completely drawn in to the moment, and wondered what path the story would follow next. Marin Ireland’s work in this play is amazing and breathtaking

The other sister, Jake and Frankie’s sister Sally, should be more broken than Maggie Siff plays her. Her psyche has surely been shattered and glued back together again with no support from her batty family, but Siff gives us no inkling of this. She’s a city mouse, not country – she’s just not part of the mad dysfunctional (what else) family of which she pretends to be a part. That said, while Siff is disappointing, she does the job. After all, her clear portrayal allowed me to envision who Sally really was. She just wasn’t complete.

Sisters and brothers and mothers and fathers. Everyone in this play is connected and broken. It seemed to me (I don’t think it’s defined) that Frankie (Josh Hamilton) is that middle child – perhaps because I’ve known those middle children. Jake the eldest, Frankie the brother who’ll never be good enough to their mother no matter how screwed up Jake is and behaves. Sally is… just a girl.

Hamilton’s Frankie is such a sad character, quite different from the others I’ve seen him play, and the discipline of the man! There were 10-15 minute scenes in which he was so (appropriately) still I was sure the character had died, as was, no doubt, most of the audience. He’s sweet and pathetic and so real it hurts. The scenes between Frankie and Beth are heartbreaking, he’s so torn and tumbled. Ireland’s confused and damaged Beth is broken and loveable and filled with an odd hope. “I live inside now,” she says to Frankie, as if her disability has allowed her to see which brother really loves her.

Nivola – what a sea change from the characters I generally see him play. On the phone in the opening scene he was creepy; the moment his Jake was in the physical presence of other human beings, he was truly and immediately frightening. He is relentless and intense – not to mention scarily hot.

Whaley – loved him since he gave Kevin Spacey paper cuts in “Swimming With Sharks” – plays this role as if it’s nutrition for him. Unlike Siff, when Whaley’s Mike stands apart from his family, he’s still in the same universe. He just doesn’t want to be. It’s inescapable.

The first act sped by (this production ran 2 hours and 40 minutes at least, but who noticed), but there’s a scene in Act 2 that is probably not as long as it felt. It’s Sally’s scene where she finally tells her mother Lorraine what only she and Jake have known for years -- and only she admits. It’s a tough scene, lots of exposition telling us a great deal about Jake, and herself, and their father. Unfortunately the Sally in the script is not really there in the actor. If it hadn’t been for Karen Young’s obnoxious, mean, and knowing interjections, the scene was in danger of going flat.

As for the parental generation –
Laurie Metcalf (Meg) is the mother of battered daughter Beth and is more than a bit dotty, but finally reveals the underlying strength that has kept her family together all these years. She deals with the use and abuse with dignity and an odd klutzy grace. And she’s damned funny.

Keith Carradine as Baylor, Meg’s husband and father of Beth and Mike, is ornery and irascible. Long-suffering he seems, but you just know he’s inflicted as much or more on the family he complains of. He’s terrific – relaxed, real, alive. The attitude of “This is just who I am, deal with it,” emanates from him. And I absolutely loved the scene in Act 2 where his wife Meg rubs Baylor’s stinky and cracked feet with mink oil (meant for boot leather!) while he berates her for … oh, anything that comes to mind.

All these strange moments -- Baylor pulling the afghan off the probably dying Frankie (whom Baylor accidentally shot on the last day of hunting season because Frankie wasn’t wearing anything colored orange), Baylor folding the flag with Meg – epitomize Shepard and his take on our society, in a time and place that really doesn’t seem all that different from now. We all recognize that oblivious male of a certain generation. It’s hilarious, as is Meg’s unheeded conversation about the differences between male and female. Yes, it’s of the 80s, but really, has anything changed one skin cell below the surface?

Finally Karen Young as the mother of crazy Jake, sad sack Frankie, and the girl who doesn’t quite fit, Sally. In the first production of this play in the mid 1980s, Karen Young played the role of Sally. Here she plays Sally’s mother “Lorraine.” There were moments in the second act when I watched Young, wondering what it was like to watch this young woman play the role she’d originated. Had Ms. Siff been rivetingly right for the role of Sally, I would have forgotten that tidbit. Karen Young’s Lorraine is annoying, on the mark, bats, harsh, real, obsessive, unlikeable, yet sympathetic, which makes Young ballsy and stunning. Lorraine not only is a nightmare, she’s lived a nightmare for a couple decades.

Ethan Hawke directed. I’ve never really had a strong opinion of him one way or another. I like his acting much of the time, not all of the time. As a director of a Sam Shepard play, he’s done a fine job in a not surprising way – it makes sense to me that Hawke would connect with Shepard, and they would make music together. The script is disturbing, filled with dark humor. That is not difficult to associate with Hawke. What really made this work for me, though, was the way Hawke and his colleagues made the play sing. Mournfully, but sing.

On my way home I read the program as usual, all the way through the director’s notes, which this time were not about what he intended for the production (which is fine, since most Director’s Notes explaining a production show the gap between intent and execution). Hawke’s notes in the program were labeled “About the Music.” I found this passage so fascinating I have reproduced it here, hoping I’m not infringing copyright. This passage was so stimulating to me in evoking the creative process behind this production that it makes me want to see the play again, and I hope this will make you want to see it, too.

About the Music
Shelby Gaines has long been a music producer and sound designer that I’ve admired. In the spring of 2008, he told me of an art exhibit he and his brother, Latham, had up at a gallery downtown. The sculptures were found objects like a barn door, a pitchfork, an old telephone sign, etc., that the brothers had somehow transformed and given “voice” to sonically. I commented that they all looked like props from a Sam Shepard play. Latham, who is also an actor, laughed and agreed – adding that he’d always wondered what a ‘barn door’ or a ‘chair’ would say if it could talk. Somehow, by the end of the night we decided to have a reading of A LIE OF THE MIND after hours at the gallery. The set designer, Derek McLane, came to listen. All of us were struck by the scope and landscape created by these ‘instruments’ and how well they were suited to the play. Quickly we began work on this production. The Gaines brothers built instruments specifically for the play and Derek designed a set that could be embraced by these sculptures. Each instrument has been created to give “VOICE” to a different character. Through the rehearsal process with the actors, we have attempted to integrate these sounds with the text.

-- Ethan Hawke

Those Gaines boys are fascinating and make beautiful soulful music. I think this production hints at so many aspects of the creative process that I hope somebody took notes. Dispassionate notes – we’d read them, we’d get it, we’d imagine, we’d take part. It could be one wonderful teaching tool for writers, actors, musicians, producers, directors, and just people.

Not forgetting that Theatre is a collaborative art, all parts work with each other to make the whole, including:
· Set design by Derek McLane who, as mentioned, created a fascinating space that was useful to the actors and stimulating to the audience, and a visual match to the music and the prose.
· Costume design by Catherine Zuber. Blue jeans and boxer shorts are of all time, and yet the costume choices were significant and emotive, particularly for the mothers. The combination of boxer shorts with leather jacket was distinctive.
· As I said earlier, Gaines’ Musical contribution was invaluable. It requires my second viewing/hearing just to know if they change it up from night to night.
· Lighting by Jeff Croiter was in tune with the actors and the story.
· Sound design by Shane Rettig – since the music was live, I wondered about the dog barking. Dogs are, of course, anxious to please humans, but could the cues be so consistently produced, night after night, without a designer? I think not.

To sum up –Family is hell, as is the lack thereof. And just how many lies of the mind are there?

Sometimes I look at a story -- especially one in which multiple characters are fairly equal in their importance and contribution to the whole -- and actively ask “Who took a journey?” Sometimes the answer is “no one.” In this story, there are several journeys. They’re broken, incomplete, they do not satisfy the travelers, and they’re certainly not happy. But they are journeys. I was very glad to be along for the ride.

It’s a limited engagement, closing March 20th, so Go.

~ Cheers. Molly Matera signing off to re-read some Sam Shepard.


  1. My wife and I saw this, and you are right on the mark. Absolutely incredible, thought provoking, and soulful. 'It isn't a musical ... but it IS musical.' ... VERY well put!

  2. I'm still trying to determine what it all means, but this play supplies a vast, expansive canvass for an incredibly talented group of actors to create some truly remarkable if unfathomable characters. The intimacy of the theater itself (lack of ventilation notwithstanding)adds a final, almost palpable touch to a memorable night of theater

  3. Hi Molly .... I'm the first "Anonymous" that saw this with my wife. We travel to New York as often as we can to see some good shows, and I just read some of the other reviews of this production from opening night, and though they are quite good ..... I still think that YOU nailed it! Your review is right on the money! And I think and agree, a great production!

    Thanks for your review and insight!

    Anonymous # 1