March 20, 2013

"The Mound Builders" Falls Totally Flat

The expectation we have for playwrights is the same as we have for parents: that they should love all their children equally.  Of course they don’t. Both tend to have a soft spot for their problem child.

By several accounts, Lanford Wilson’s favorite from the nearly two dozen plays he wrote was The Mound Builders, which has just been revived in the Linney theater at The Pershing Square Signature Center.

It tells the story of a group of archaeologists working a dig outside a small Illinois town in the mid-‘70s. Wilson clearly wanted to grapple with issues like how we define and value the past. But he didn’t make the task easy. 

The Mound Builders is a memory play that unfolds in a series of flashbacks recalled by the leader of the expedition and the action bounces back and forth between scenes in which he dictates notes about what happened during a fateful summer at the site and scenes of the events he is recounting.

The archaeologists are a rag tag group that includes the head of the expedition August Howe and his wife and tween daughter, Howe’s deputy and his wife, and Howe’s sister, a famous novelist and recovering addict.

Also on hand is Chad Jasker, the son of the man who owns the land on which the site is located. Jasker yearns to be accepted by the scholarly team but he also has other plans for the land on which they’ve set up camp. As others have noted, comparisons to Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard were clearly intended. 

The original Circle Repertory Theater production won an Obie back in 1975 but the reaction to Wilson’s play was mixed.  “This is his most ambitious work," wrote New York Times critic Mel Gusow. "And it must have presented enormous problems to the director, Marshall W. Mason.” 

Judging from the rest of the review, Mason, Wilson’s frequent collaborator, proved up to the challenge.  Alas, Jo Bonney, who directed the Signature production that opened on Sunday night, has been less successful.

Bonney's muddled staging is so confusing that I gave up trying to figure it out about a third of the way into the first act. I wasn’t the only one either.  

During intermission, the two couples sitting behind me debated whether they should leave.  “There’s not much happening,” said one of the wives.  “Should we stay?” asked the other.  “I don’t think much more is going to happen,” chimed in one of the husbands.  The four of them left.  As did the couple sitting in the aisle seats next to me.  

I felt marooned by their departures but I stuck it out. The second act did pick up. Albeit not enough. The actors, several of them miscast, seemed as listless as the direction and as befuddled as the audience.   

And yet, poking through that debris are the bones of a potentially engaging play that, in the right hands, just might reveal how deserving it is of its father's love.

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