The Lost Frontier of America, written and devised by David Anderson with Ted Pugh and Fern Sloan. Directed by Ted Pugh and Fern Sloan.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"Why does this always have to be about you?"
Intellectual theater can be compelling even when it momentarily lapses into self-congratulatory inner monologue. David Andersonís two-character (though one actor) play addresses the madman image of wretched genius through the words of Ralph Waldo Emersonís book "Self-Reliance". It is a one hour and ten minute exploration in a contemporary diner that is about to close for the night (remember when dinerís operated 24 hours a day?) by a character who, though dressed as a college student, is already aiming at that age-equivalent description Ďover the hillí and is still struggling with the concept of Ďself."
Utilizing the poetry of Haft, Derek Walcott, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Mary Oliver (apparently Emerson wasnít enough) the play is less a play than a "devised theatrical piece" which is still in an experimental state - an introduction to the play announced that the ending has not been the same twice in this short run - and may evolve into something it has not yet achieved. In its own way that is one of the most compelling things about the show.
Anderson plays the Man and Brigitte Choura plays the disinterested and disaffected waitress who ultimately has a zinger that spearheads the final explorations of the piece. Choura should be chewing gum. She is that low-key a character. So many young, and not so young, actors make their actual livings as waiters and waitresses that she ought to have the tolerantly intolerant act down pat, but instead she just seems to be walking through her role until her final scene. Itís hard to assess the performance; it is short and abrupt and not disturbing to the Manís inner monologue, not really. Clearly, from the dialogue, their slight professional relationship is already and old one, but somehow her moments seem almost irrelevant, an attempt to turn a one-man monologue into more of an inter-related play. So far it doesnít seem to be working.
The third character is the audience, turned into the many faces, minds and voices that pursue the inner man in the piece. We are lit, we are obvious and he sees and addresses us as both old acquaintances and old enemies. "The reason I can see you is I am letting you go," he says to us at one point. He may mean it, but just how and why and when is not really clear. Emersonís concepts of "Self-Reliance" are at the core of the piece and it is these ideas, read out to us, dwelt upon in one-sided dialogue, that give the work its strength.
When David Anderson as the Man uses those phrases the play has its greatest strengths, but when he moves aside and lets other intellectual constructs into the mix the play loses its playfulness and becomes harder to grasp and more difficult to listen to with any real respect. We want this man to struggle with concepts of self, but we donít want him to become esoteric and slipshod and elastic. Anderson has a remarkable face and his expressions are visually engaging and tell us more about his mindís travails than his words ever do. He speaks here in a common, middle-American voice but that "special" sound he uses when the intellect overtakes the heart sneaks in now and again and he becomes a tad too precious in this almost bi-polar examination of his characterís needs.
There are so many elements in this piece that fight for prominence. The Man has a superior intellect and no way to control it. The Man cannot decide on the simplest things yet he can toss around concepts that would baffle a Sherlock Holmes scholar. There is a curious level of understanding that fights with the gut-reaction to reasonable inputs. The "piece" is not yet a "play" but it could be one day. It very well could be.
The Lost Frontier of America, a Walking the Dog Theatre Production, plays at Space 360 at 360 Warren Street in Hudson, NY through November 4. For information and tickets contact WTD Theatre at 518-610-0909 or online at www.wtdtheatre.org.