Tuning Out ...

Film critics used to grouse about how stage plays never really transfer well to the screen--at least until Kenneth Branagh started transforming Shakespeare into cinema. And yet a well-written play provides smart dialogue, even when the setting is too confined for the big screen. Far, far worse than turning a good play into a mediocre movie is turning television into theater.

Television writing is generally shallow--cheap jokes, cheap sentiments and questionable values. And these are the characteristics of Lawrence Roman's Alone Together, now in a glossy production at the Arvada Center. Just like a TV sitcom, it appropriates a complex phenomenon and squeezes it into a simplistic story line with tired humor and a basically foul worldview--it's neither honest nor inventive nor insightful. A waste of time, money and acting talent, Roman's play is one of those rare theatrical occurrences--a play with absolutely no redeeming social value.

The story opens with George and Helene Butler saying goodbye to their youngest (and apparently favorite) son, Keith, as he leaves for college. Alone together at last after some thirty-odd years of child-rearing, they discuss George's past marital infidelities and Helene's longing to paint--an ambition thwarted by having "sacrificed" herself for her family. Meanwhile, their eldest son, Michael, has snuck in the back door and hidden out in his old room. He has run away from an excellent teaching job at MIT because he can't solve an unsolvable math problem. Just as the parents try to make love on the living-room floor, Michael enters to disturb and distress them.

Then Elliot, the second oldest and the one married son, shows up. His wife has kicked him out for fooling around with other women. A young girl--Janie, a friend of Keith's--shows up next seeking shelter, and the house is now jam-packed. Helene loses it. George blames the Sixties for making him a bad dad. The boys make increasingly ridiculous demands on the parental units. Only Janie is sensitive enough to Helene's frustration to pack up and leave right away, though womanizer Elliot eventually takes off as well. But Michael has to be forced out with a crowbar. This is the stuff of parody, and a wittier playwright could have lambasted the whole batch with some stylish wit.

But parody is beyond Roman. His sympathy for the parents is expressed through moralisms that seem plucked directly from must-not-see TV. And not even a terrific cast can save such lame, boxy material. Jan Van Sickle as George emanates a gentility on stage that might suit any number of better plays. Susan Long might be an intelligent actor in a better role--though given her balsa-wood performance as Helene, it's an act of faith to say so. Richard Nelson (Michael) and Christopher Briggs (Elliot) are both accomplished young actors who draw the eye and radiate energy, and both have done important work around town. Justin MacPherson as the youngest brother is likewise charming, and Amy Adams's bright presence offers some relief from the tediousness of the story.

But these are not real people. They have no authentic feelings. Unprincipled and superficial, all their impulses are directed at the accumulation of money and the gratification of empty whims. The parents never actually try to enlighten their errant offspring; they simply shout them out. But then, how could they hope for enlightenment? Their sons reflect their own baseness--cowardice, lovelessness and thoughtlessness. Only the playwright fails to see how close the apple falls to the tree.

Then, too, only in the late twentieth century and only in certain corners of upper-middle-class America would it be thought an imposition for a family to receive home its sons after a long absence. And only in a television-afflicted culture would sons be so unkind and so selfish as to exploit their parents.

Who is this play supposed to appeal to besides boomers who have grown accustomed to self-gratification and whose values have evolved to justify their self-absorption? The older couple in front of me left in disgust at the intermission. I wanted to go with them.

Alone Together, through May 12 at the Arvada Center, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, 431-3939.


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