June 22, 2013

"Charles Ives Take Me Home" Loses Its Way

Maybe if I’d had a better sense of who Charles Ives is, I'd have had a better time at Charles Ives Take Me Home, the new play that is running at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater through June 29.

I knew that Ives was a major American composer and when I got home and Googled him, I discovered that he had been a major sports fan too. 

That little bit of knowledge made it a little easier to understood why playwright Jessica Dickey would use Ives as the pivotal figure in her three-hander about the difficult relationship between a classical violinist and his basketball prodigy daughter.

Having Ives serve as interlocutor has the potential to make the play more than a routine family drama, but Dickey fails to show why he's the right man for this job and not just a gimmick. 

Dickey has been better in the past. I’d originally wanted to see the show because I’d been so impressed four years ago when I saw her debut work, The Amish Project, an affective one-woman show about the real-life slaughter of five girls in an Amish schoolhouse back in 2006 (click here to see my review of it).   

But this time out, she struggles with the transition from the monolog format to the fuller style of storytelling that mines the complicated interplay between characters. The ones in Charles Ives Take Me Home seem more comfortable interacting with the audience than with one another. 

The play begins with a meta moment when the Ives character, who serves as its Our Town-style narrator, runs through a clever version of the pre-curtain announcement in which audience members are reminded to turn off cellphones and unwrap candies. 

He then introduces Laura Starr, a girls’ basketball coach who speaks directly to the audience as she delivers a tough-love speech to her team. 

A few minutes later, Ives brings on John Starr, Laura’s violinist dad, who studied at Juilliard, idolized Ives and, as he makes clear in his opening soliloquy, disappointed his own father who taught gym classes at the local high school and hoped his son would share his love of sports.

The monologs, which continue throughout the 70-minute show, are as strong as the ones in The Amish Project and it’s easy to imagine actors adopting them for auditions.  But the speeches are too much tell (“I looked at Charles Ives as a kind of new father,” John too explicitly says at one point) and not enough show. 

Flashback scenes to key moments between father and daughter or student and teacher are handled even less skillfully. But no blame can be assigned to the actors or to Daniella Topol's spare but lucid direction.

Kate Nowlin is amusing as the no-nonsense coach and poignant as she portrays the awkward bravado of the young Laura as she ages from grade school to college. 

And Drew McVety is equally adept at conveying the frustration of a man unable to achieve the career he’s always wanted or to forge a bond with the child he doesn’t understand.

Each is also impressively convincing at performing the requisite skill of dribbling a basketball or playing Ives tunes on the violin. Meanwhile, Henry Stram is congenial and equally adept at the piano as Ives. (Click here to read a piece about the casting process.) 

The play's fault lies with the play itself. Its conflict between the competing passions seems so rooted in personal experience that it’s hard not to imagine that Dickey is working out unfinished business with her own dad. 

That's fine. It’s what writers do. But it’s also their job to synthesize those experiences so that both they and their audiences can come to see those situations in new and unexpected ways.  

The Ives in Charles Ives Take Me Home remains too much of a cipher and that makes it hard to see him or this play clearly.

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