It's easier to preach than it is to teach--but too many contemporary playwrights are still on the pulpit.
With all the white-collar crime undermining public confidence in Wall Street these days, one might suppose an angry little play exposing the selfish, callous nastiness of it all would be most welcome. But Larry Loebell's Views of the Lion at the Changing Scene isn't angry enough or tough enough to grapple with the really malevolent issues posed by financial skulduggery. Instead, it's like listening to a long-winded sermon about the evils of disgracing your family.
The story concerns a high-flying financier named David Williamson (a convincing performance by Gary Cupp) who has made $700 million engaging in insider trading. The courts confiscated only half of the loot--why they didn't take it all is a mystery--and then ordered him to prison. (Are you listening, Michael Milken?)
On the night before he must surrender to the marshal, David sits in his private club trying to force down a sandwich--he's trying to imagine what it will be like to eat food at someone else's command for the next three to five years. He notices the waiter (a nice, chilly performance by Tony Accetta), and the two begin a strange and interesting dialogue; the waiter is crisply honest, never too servile or contemptuous of David's new status as a felon. As it turns out, the waiter has made $55,000 by making investments based on bits of David's lunchtime conversations. When David explodes in anger about being ripped off--a singularly bizarre attitude, considering how many people he himself has swindled--the unruffled waiter goes on to assure him that three to five is a small price to pay for such a huge fortune.
Later, when David returns home, his wife loses it--she has been humiliated in the press and debased by his conviction, and she wants no part of his money (and if you believe that, I have a sure-thing new theater company you might want to invest in). She's going to strike out on her own, get a job or something, and abandon him to his fate--none of those sordid conjugal visits for her. As they start to make angry love, their college-age daughter walks in and, thoroughly disgusted by the flagrante delicto display, tells Dad off and stomps out. The next morning, mother and daughter spar after David leaves, and the daughter lets Mom know she's going on TV to tell all.
Because both of these women are so fundamentally spoiled and self-absorbed, it is impossible to feel anything but contempt for them. And because there's no big-picture vision here, the pontification about disgracing one's family fizzles visibly. Loebell's dialogue is natural and lively, but in the end he seems to have missed his own moral. David dismisses his crimes as "victimless"--an arrogant presumption that his wife calls him on, but for the wrong reasons: She thinks she's the victim. It's all so daytime television.
A more complex but just as self-conscious sermon is delivered in the Boulder Director's Theatre production of A.R. Gurney's The Old Boy. A fine cast, excellent direction by Tom Rowan and snappy dialogue aren't enough to save this exercise in rhetoric. Apparently Gurney thinks that if you can just get ahold of the right cause, you can proselytize at will. Alas, art is about showing, not telling.
Senator Sam (played with effortless confidence by Dan Wiley) returns to his prep-school alma mater to give a graduation address and, as it turns out, honor the memory of Perry, an old friend who has recently killed himself to avoid the long, painful decline of AIDS. Perry's overbearing mother, Harriet, arrives to donate tennis courts in her son's memory, and Perry's widow, Alison, accompanies the nasty matriarch. Apparently, Alison once loved Sam, and the two are about to get it on when Alison learns that it was Sam who set her up years before with Perry--a closet homosexual who tried to live a straight life, with heartbreaking results.
The presence of Alison and Harriet dredges up a host of disturbing memories for Sam, and he has to come to terms with a number of things: his own aberrant womanizing, his political aspirations and his treatment of Perry (Chris P. Washam, in a gentle, honest performance seen in flashbacks). Sam's commencement address sounds like a gushy liberal editorial--all the proper sentiments about intolerance with very little genuine feeling and only the most superficial rationale.
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As obsessed as Gurney is with his sociological harangue, it's not surprising that the most interesting characters in his play are the hypocrites and fools. Saralu Diller gives a searing performance as the self-deceived and ever-manipulative Harriet. Chet Martin makes a poignant, unaffected headmaster. And Charles Wingerter as Sam's campaign manager is a complicated string-puller with the sharp little mind of a political weasel.
But in the end, all this good work serves only as propaganda. Like Loebell, Gurney is so busy trying to tell the audience what to think that he neglects to do much thinking for himself.
Views of the Lion, through March 24 at The Changing Scene, 1527 1/2 Champa Street, 893-5775.
The Old Boy, through March 30 at the Guild Theatre, 4840 Sterling Drive, Boulder, 499-5552.