OLD MEN'S RIVER

Mark Twain spins fitfully in his grave every time Bernard Sabath's execrable The Boys in Autumn plays again. Now this effort by a third-rate artiste to project his meager talents onto the work of one of his betters is playing at the Theatre at Muddy's. If it weren't so dull, it would be an outrage.

Sabath takes two of Twain's most memorable characters, Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, and portrays them as maudlin middle-aged men in search of a second childhood. When Tom meets Huck again after thirty or forty years, Tom is a convicted pederast who refrains from attacking any more little girls only because he fears the electric torture awaiting perverts in the mental institutions of the early twentieth century. Tom has no sense of responsibility to his victims, no glimmer of the meaning of his actions--his single clearest emotion is self-pity. Looking for someone to save him from himself, Tom finds Huck, who by now is an embittered old man hoping to be arrested for the mercy killing of his terminally ill wife. Huck is really awaiting the judgment of God, believing he is destined for hell.

In Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck decides to aid in the escape of Jim, a runaway slave. Huck believes he is choosing everlasting damnation for himself in defying the conventional morality of the day, but the reader knows better--and loves him for his authentic virtue. Sabath tries to supply Huck with an equally grave moral crisis, but his adult Huck is no longer noble of spirit, just guilt-ridden and cantankerous. Worse yet, despite all his boyhood promise and the fact that he is now an educated man, Huck has lost all his insight and has gained not a trace of wisdom.

An important talent might have borrowed the characters of another author to make an original statement--Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern come to mind. But there is absolutely no good reason for Sabath to have filched Tom and Huck from literary history, since he is capable neither of duplicating Twain's wit nor of understanding who these boys are--much less what kind of men they would have made. Sabath betrays Twain, but he also exposes his own shortcomings as a storyteller; in his hands, grown men trying to recapture boyhood is not only an exercise in futility but a tiresome bit of self-deception as well. Why didn't Sabath just make up his new characters and write a more honest play about male bonding and redemption?

Sabath's work simply stinks, and the Theatre at Muddy's production unfortunately does little to stanch the stench. Actors William Berry as Tom and Wade P. Wood as Huck are worthy of better material, and the script here overwhelms them. Berry makes Tom a kind of nasty weasel--without conscience yet needy, desperate and irritating. The reading of the character is true to the play, but Sabath's awkward language trips Berry up, which is odd considering he dealt very well with the much more complex dialogue of last season's The Illusion. Wood has Huck raging loudly every few minutes; he is forever exploding rather than seething, and his anger becomes a one-note response to nearly everything Tom does. Huck orders Tom off his place so often and so vehemently that it's a continual disappointment when Tom does not leave.

One can't fault the actors, though, because nobody could save this bilge. The play ends with a reconciliation (natch) and with both men embracing their lost youth and the promise of escaping from reality in Brazil or gliding down the Mississippi on a raft--again. There is nothing creative about Sabath's approach to Twain and nothing creative about his answer to midlife crises. Innocence cannot be recaptured, it can only be earned. All that Sabath has earned is a trip up the river without a paddle.

 
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