John Justice is an exceptionally nice man, a gentle and encouraging teacher, and a playwright of daring and intelligence. It pains me to say that I did not care for his new double-bill of literary pastiches nearly as much as I wanted to.
Two Sams, which Shakespeare & Originals is presenting at a variety of local venues, consists of a pair of one acts, each of which imagines a notable Samuel at crisis point. In the shorter of the two, "Papa Knew Rilke," the Sam is Beckett; in the longer and more ambitious, "Vile Melancholy," it's Dr. Johnson. To Justice's credit, both plays embrace a style and linguistic quality peculiar to their characters: in the Beckett, the action is as absurdly self-contained as Endgame or Krapp's Last Tape, while the Johnson is set in the doctor's own Restoration period.
"Papa Knew Rilke" places Beckett in the hands of a Nazi interrogator whose expertise in the means of torture is not limited to the physical; the recitation of her own, kitsch-ridden poetry is deadlier than the more corporeal methods at her disposal. While the aesthetic conflict between Beckett and the grotesquely named Schatzi does lead to some pointed philosophic epigrams ("Your nihilism means nothing to me."), much of the play is given over to echoing Beckett's own dialogue ("I can't go on! I will go on."), the odd pop culture reference (as in the name "Frau Blucher," followed by the inevitable neighing of horses), or the citing of Beckettian titles ("Oh crap, my last tape!") as dialogue, a collegiate joke done much better by Woody Allen in Love and Death with the titles of Russian novels.
Jeffrey Scott Detwiler manages to make his Beckett both dignified and ridiculous at once. But Flynt Burton's German accent is nugatory; and she's breathless, not after every line, but between every other word.
"Vile Melancholy" is more problematic, in part because Justice's language so often soars to exhilarating dramatic and period heights. So accurately does he capture the flavor of Restoration dialogue, in all its witty profundity, that you may wish, as I did, that it was in the service of something more worthwhile than this curious mélange of sex farce and deeply felt character study.
The lure of the anachronism is strong, but perhaps should have been resisted. It takes a kind of genius to sustain a believable depiction of historical period while pulling off outrageous, modern jokes; Tom Stoppard can carry it off now and then, as could Woody Allen, Groucho Marx, and Bob Hope, whose Monsieur Beaucaire is a model for the form. Justice can't quite master the task: while a notion such as Dr. Johnson imagining himself as a kind of "human jukebox," spouting epigrams on demand, is clever enough, it doesn't really suit him. He was not — as the Python boys once imagined Oscar Wilde — surrounded by dolts who wished only to hear him repeat his witticisms, and so the joke falls flat.
Worse, these anachronisms aren't presented in an idiom appropriate to the setting. Thus, we get Boswell as a fawning toady riding Dr. Johnson's coattails to public glory; periodic explosions of rock music; Boswell rubbing his crotch as he attempts to buoy Johnson's courage; the doctor's recently deceased patron Henry Thrale composing a Penthouse letter to the editor into a hand-held tape recorder; and a flagellant's rig kitted out with a Hannibal Lecter face-mask.
What both saves this curious enterprise and causes the greatest frustration are Justice's often brilliant dialogue and the quality of the acting. As the aged protagonist, Tom Marriott gives one of the least self-serving performances I've ever seen, with a lack of vanity the doctor himself might have applauded. His Dr. Johnson is so rich, varied, pitiable, and celebratory that it deserves a far finer vehicle in which to shine.
Hope Hynes is fast becoming a local treasure, and her acting here is superb. Her Hester Thrale embraces a carriage and coyness that would do any Restoration actress proud, a sly hint of Ann-Margaret, and, finally, a heart breaking sense of the agonizing tension between chaste and physical love. As her Italian suitor Piozzi, Derrick Ivey locates the sweet soul within the prototypical cad, but makes an ugly hash of Boswell, emphasizing smarminess and sawing the air too much with … well, pretty much every limb. Jeffrey Scott Detwiler is an amusing Thrale — if rather snidely imagined by the playwright as a vulgar Epicurean literally eating himself to death. Flynt Burton's Queeney Thrale is of a piece with her performance in "Papa Knew Rilke."
Rick Lonon's direction is swift and, considering his space limitations, expansive. But must a portion of the audience peer around a massive speaker that is, after all, employed to very little use, and most of that dispensable? Derrick Ivey's costumes are inventive and apt, especially the Restoration clothing, which is often as witty as the lines Justice has given its wearers.
I sense in Justice's script an admirable desire to limn the contours and limitations of love — Johnson's for Hester, Boswell's for Johnson, Hester's for Piozzi — and to do so in an idiom appropriate to his characters. I would love to see him achieve it, especially with Marriott and Hynes on board.
Shakespeare & Originals presents Two Sams Thursday-Saturday, July 31-Aug. 2, at 8:15 p.m. at Manbites Dog Theater (http://www.manbitesdogtheater.org/), 703 Foster St., Durham, NC. $8-$10. (NOTE: July 31 is pay-what-you-will night.) 919/682-3343. http://www.newfrequency.org/sams.htm.
*Erroneously attributed to Robert W. McDowell when first published. Corrected 8/11/03.