March 17, 2010

A Mixed Forecast for "When the Rain Stops Falling"

Science fiction is far from the first thing I think of when someone says theater. But there’s been so much time travel and other paranormal activity going on in some recent plays I’ve seen that I’ve started wondering if Rod Serling, the “Twilight Zone’s” master of the fifth dimension, had begun literally ghost-writing scripts from the grave.

Identically-named doppelgangers drift in and out as the scenes jump back and forth between 1958 and 2008 in Alexi Kaye Campbell’s The Pride, which is playing at the Lucille Lortel Theatre through the end of the month. Past and present collide over the same time span in the similarly bifurcated Clybourne Park, which ends its run at Playwrights Horizons this weekend. But the most Serlingesque of the group has got to be When the Rain Stops Falling, the new drama by Andrew Bovell that opened at Lincoln Center Theater’s Mitzi E. Newhouse last week. 

When the Rain Stops Falling
is set in England and Australia during multiple time periods between 1959 and 2039 that, at least in this staging, flow into one another like puddles of water. There are nine actors but only seven characters since two sets of actors play older and younger versions of the same people.  Three of the characters have the same name. Several of them repeat—almost word for word
brainy references to the French philosopher Denis Diderot and the Spanish painter Francisco Goya's “Saturn Devouring His Children.”  And at the beginning of the play, in a dystopian future where the weather is always bad, a fish falls from the sky.  (Click here to read a fascinating blog about this production from the first read to the opening night)

The ringmaster of all this is David Cromer.  That name meant little to most theater mavens (with the exception of Wall Street Journal theater critic Terry Teachout, an early and ardent booster) until Cromer’s smart production of the musical Adding Machine won the Obie and Lortel awards in 2008 and his brilliant reimagining of Thornton Wilder’s classic Our Town, still playing at the Barrow Street Theatre, gave him the kind of superstar status that few theater directors even dream about.  The early closing—and never opening—of his two-part revival of Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound last fall hasn’t dimmed his wattage one bit. (Click here to read a profile that ran last month in the New York Times Magazine.) 

I confess it was Cromer’s name that had me begging for a ticket to When The Rain Stops Falling’s nearly sold-out run.  I confess, too, that I was baffled by much of what I saw, like many others in the audience (“Wait a minute now, let’s see whose son was he,” a man in the lobby wondered aloud after the performance I attended as he studied the family tree that’s included in the Playbill). The minimal sets and
interchangeable costumes don’t help. Nor does the lighting—gloomy is pretty much gloomy.  Of course, bafflement isn’t always a bad thing. But I still don’t know if the confusion here enhances the experience of watching this play or is just a gimmick to make us think that it’s more intelligent than it really is. 

There’s no real question about Cromer’s smarts however.  His ability to create memorable stage pictures is as sharp as ever. But Cromer’s real gift is his ability to get performances from his actors that are so natural that audiences sometimes feel as though they’re eavesdropping.  He’s put together a crackerjack cast. Victoria Clark and Mary Beth Hurt are among its better known names but it’s unfair to single anyone out because they’re all excellent. And they all eat up the arias that Bovell gives each character. (Click here to read a short piece he wrote about the play on  These are the kind of speeches that seemed destined to end up in many an audition portfolio.

And then there’s the fish.  Its symbolism almost knocks you upside the head but, like Serling’s old TV dramas, this is an unabashed morality tale.  When the Rain Stops Falling is about the baggage (literal as well as figurative here) that we carry around filled not only with the things we’ve done in the past but those our parents did as well, not to mention the burdens we’re bequeathing to the next generation. And I suppose learning how to bear that weight is a message that’s relevant for every time period.

No comments: