And the Phony Award goes to ... 'Darkness'

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  June 12, 2002 at 12:35 PM
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NEW YORK, June 12 (UPI) -- If there were Phony Awards for the worst of the theater season as there are Tony Awards for the best of Broadway, then the usually reliable Craig Lucas' new play co-written with a protégé, David Schulner, would win the Phony for worst play hands down.

The meaningless Atlantic Theater Company production is aptly titled "This Thing of Darkness," a reference to Prospero's description of Caliban in William Shakespeare's "The Tempest." Even the congenitally perverse chief drama critic of an eminent newspaper had to admit that the Lucas-Schulner play "is most effective in darkness, literally, as when the lights are dim or even entirely out."

The Playbill lists a cast of six -- five men and one woman -- each taking two roles that occasionally overlap or require taking the role of the opposite sex without changing costume or makeup. To make it more confusing, the characters are depicted at ages 22, 47, and 72, slipping around in time without warning.

The central characters are Abbey and a college chum, Donald, who share a birthday that they promise to celebrate together through the years. The audience shares their experience of looking ahead at two birthdays in the future for a confused glimpse of what life has in store for them, and it isn't a pretty picture.

Although Abbey and Donald's brave new world is never described specifically, there are references to scientific tampering with the mind that has a dehumanizing effect and even hints as to some sort of apocalypse. When Donald at 47 seems to be talking to himself, he is actually speaking into a phone planted in his head.

There are suggestions that Abbey and Donald's friendship may be rooted in a sexual liaison, especially when they appear to be devoted old queens taking care of each other at 72, but Abbey apparently has married and has two sons. He is identified as a professor of philosophy and Donald vaguely alludes to a career as a doctor specializing in pharmaceutical research.

The personalities of both leads roles are ill-defined, what with all the double-casting and time-leaping, and it is difficult to even imagine what Lucas, best known for his Broadway hit play "Prelude to a Kiss" that was made into a successful movie, and Schulner had in mind when writing this 90-minute, intermissionless opus.

Time in its various aspects has always intrigued Lucas. In "Prelude to a Kiss," which is about a dying old man who steals the soul of a bride on her wedding day, the playwright has the female lead commenting on her sudden acquisition of a lifetime of experiences as a happy event, "having lived all that time and be so alive, so sure of something, anything."

But in "This Thing of Darkness" time seems to have been a drag that has taught Abbey and Donald very little.

Donald tells Abbey at 72, "You don't have morals, Abbey, you have postures. What actions have you ever committed?" Abbey, in turn, is just as disdainful of Donald, nagging him about "waltzing in here after decades and deciding you want to have commitment...What do you know about commitment?"

Lucas, now 51, met Schulner six years ago through the Humana Festival in Louisville, Ky., which pairs neophyte playwrights with established playwrights in writing one-act plays. Lucas decided he wanted to be paired with Schulner, then 22, because he admired a one-act play the younger man had written. The result of their collaboration, the first in Lucas' career, was "This Thing of Darkness."

The cast members does the best it can with the disorienting material given them, but it's an uphill and ultimately losing battle despite Lucas' efforts as a director. Chris Messina is the most sympathetic member of the cast as Abbey, and Daniel Eric Gold is good as the prickly Donald.

The test of their acting professionalism comes when they have to compare their private parts as casually and without embarrassment as though they were comparing nose sizes.

Others in the cast are Mary McCann, Thomas J. Ryan, Ralph Waite, and Larry Keith. John McDermott is responsible for designing a set that resembles as Cape Cod summer cottage furnished with wicker and sporting an anchor as a wall decoration. Candice Donnelly's costumes are suitably New England rustic.

Lighting designer Christopher Akerlind gets to turn off the lights twice during the production, leaving the cast entirely in the dark where they are all evening anyway.

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