The Elitch Theatre opened in 1891 as the first summer-stock company in the country; over the years, it hosted such legendary stars as Sarah Bernhardt, Douglas Fairbanks, Jose Ferrer, Barbara Bel Geddes, Grace Kelly, Lynn Redgrave and Vincent Price. Many years ago, I saw Shelly Winters there in 84 Charing Cross Road; she kept forgetting her lines and was audibly waspish with her poor prompter. Elitch's had been dark for over twenty years — with the amusement park that once surrounded it long gone — when the Center for American Theatre undertook the work of restoration. That began last year at a cost of $4 million; another $5 million is needed to finish rehabilitating the theater. But in the meantime, the center is staging its first production at the renovated Carousel Pavilion on the old Elitch's grounds.
The production, appropriately enough, is Craig Wright's The Pavilion, a piece about time and the choices we make. It takes place at a high school reunion; the protagonists, Kari and Peter, both now 37, were in love at seventeen — but Peter abandoned Kari when she became pregnant. The other characters are all represented by a single actor, the play's Narrator.
This production suffers from two major problems: the script and the venue. The script is wordy, windy and sentimental, and the protagonists' complaints seem self-absorbed and petty. Since they were last together, Kari has gone on to marry a golf pro named Hans, who's perfectly nice to her but obsessed with golf. She tells Peter that one night, after they'd made love, she'd asked Hans what he was thinking, and he'd responded — with no sense of irony or attempt at a pun — "a difficult hole." We also learn that Kari is still so traumatized by her affair with Peter that she refuses to give her husband the child he longs for. (Poor Hans: I couldn't help thinking about everything he would have to complain about were this a play about his high-school reunion.) Peter has never settled down and is currently dating a painter more than ten years his junior.
There's very little plot, and the play's observations about human nature aren't cogent enough to hold your attention. The liveliest dialogue occurs between Peter and his old-school buddies or Kari and hers, as Justin Webb, who plays the Narrator, morphs into a weeping girlfriend, a violent doper, or a guy who mans a 900-number, for-profit suicide line and gloats to Peter about the caller who kept talking for two long, lucrative hours. I had a bit of a problem when Webb played female roles; for a while, I thought Kari had one of those stereotypical gossipy gay friends.
But if he has the occasional witty moment, the playwright just doesn't know when to stop. Peter once performed with a musical group called the Mustangs; at one point, he sings a song dedicated to a musician who recently died. Kevin Causey, who plays Peter, does this well, and the song — something about "strip malls, cigarettes and latex gloves" that the author intended as either parodistic or wise, I couldn't tell — has a deft enough melody. But it goes on and on. When the ex-lovers eventually talk, their dialogue, too, is interminable. Kari laments that the ill-fated baby somehow knocked the world out of kilter. When Peter begs for another chance, she points out that time runs in only one direction: "The entire universe would have to begin again." She also observes, "I need a way to me," and he later comments, "We have to say yes to time." Meanwhile, I'm wanting to scream at the two of them to get over themselves and either reunite or part.
Circling the stage, pausing for slow tai chi-style moves, the Narrator adds his share of poetic obfuscation: "This is the way the universe begins." "Every choice has reverberations." And then there's something about a raindrop falling onto a pool of listening minds.
As for the venue, it must have seemed an inspired concept: the Carousel Pavilion on a warm summer night, with the audience rapt on all four sides of the raised stage. But it doesn't work out like that. The setting is so distracting that it dissipates whatever slight, fluttering charm this play might possess. Causey and Rebecca Brown Adelman, who plays Kari, are both strong, intelligent performers, but the setup keeps you at an empathy-precluding distance from them. Whenever Causey or Webb turns away, I lose the next several sentences. Adelman projects well, and I can hear every word she speaks, but this comes at the expense of tonal variation. There are many things to fill the attention gap, however: planes passing loudly overhead, a motorcycle gunning, shop signs, the lighted windows of nearby homes that I keep hoping will frame action more interesting than what's transpiring on the stage. But a huge blue spotlight keeps reclaiming my attention, blinding me as it sweeps over rows of audience members in pursuit of the Narrator.
Bringing back the Elitch Theatre is an exciting project. I just hope it inspires more robust programming in the future.
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