I hope the world is beginning to realize that the late Lanford Wilson was—is—a major playwright, and that his talents vastly exceed the two or three best-known efforts. So it is that the Keen Company is to be congratulated for reviving his 1970 play, “Lemon Sky.”
This relatively early work concerns how Alan (read Lanford), at age 17, left his good mother in Omaha to join his father, Douglas, who abandoned them when Alan was five to live with Ronnie–his mistress, now wife–in San Diego. Alan, now 30, narrates, but periodically steps back into the action as he recalls it, although there are scenes he did not actually witness.
Living with Doug and Ronnie are their children, Jerry, 11, and Jack, 6, as well as two teen-age foster daughters, the scholarly and abstracted Penny, and the promiscuous Carol, now bent on luring a young heir into marriage. Ronnie is an admirable woman, coping with such things as Doug’s nocturnal work at an aeronautics factory as well as his avocation, photography, shooting scantily clad or unclad girls with whom he tends to carry on.
The conflict between father and son is based, first, on the boy’s frequent absences from work at the same factory, which Alan wanted as temporary, to leave more time for his college work, but which his father forcibly made full-time—absences, by the way, that many of the other workers and even some of the overseers frequently indulge in.
Later, what infuriates Doug is Alan’s abstention from frequenting girls, by way of incipient homosexuality that the boy tries unsuccessfully to disguise. Finally, however, it is Doug’s groping of Penny, and something I mustn’t reveal involving Carol, that precipitate the climax and denouement.
Along the way, there is much else: Alan’s comments on California lifestyles, movies and radio shows; descriptions of the picturesque landscape, featuring surrounding mountains; unsuccessful picnics; relations with the young girls and younger boys; and much crackling dialogue. Also fine imagery, as when Alan notes that, after a mountain fire, “the white negative of the brush” stood high, “like ashes on a cigarette,” until “you touched it and it disintegrated.”
Both Keith Nobbs, as Alan, and Kevin Kilner, as Doug, give commanding performances, with the others, notably Kellie Overbey as Ronnie, not far behind under Jonathan Silverstein’s mostly satisfactory direction and within a simple but adequate production.
“Lemon Sky” is a fine play about the problems of coming of age against a partly dysfunctional background, made tougher by the boy’s references to how his mother was treated by Doug, and Doug’s constant angry denials of wrongdoings past and present. Throughout all this, Wilson’s sense of humor and sense of guilt, Alan’s generous empathy and shaky self-control, progress simultaneously and dramatically, making this a play one can more than enjoy—actually learn from.
Jeff Talbott’s “The Submission,” a likewise autobiographical piece, circles around an interesting idea, but suffers from extraordinarily self-indulgent writing in which loutish contemporary parlance is reproduced in stultifying detail, making long stretches as exciting as relentless running in place.
We have here Danny, a young playwright whose fifth dramatic attempt is accepted by the prestigious Humana Festival, albeit under false pretenses. Since it deals with blacks and crack—though we never get to see or hear any of it despite repeated assertions of its high quality—Danny has ascribed its authorship to an imaginary black woman. This writer is to be played in life, along with a role in the play, by a young black actress, Emilie, who, somewhat improbably, is never found out until the end under rather peculiar circumstances.
Danny shares an apartment with Pete, his nontheatrical lover, and spends much of his time at various branches of a popular food chain, supposed to be similar yet different, creating a bit of a design problem. There, as well as at home, he fraternizes with Trevor, an actor who does nothing very actorish, and functions mostly as what he becomes, Emilie’s lover.
Now one of the play’s main concerns surfaces: it is, over the period of a year, a debate between Danny and Emilie about which is a greater hardship: growing up as a white homosexual or as a black actress. Since the time is the present, such ghettoizing hardly applies to either group, and seems now less than compelling.
Add to this some unexplained details, and all that tiresome repetition, as in the future director of Danny’s play not wanting “an inkling of impropriety.” There ensues: “TREVOR: Inkling? EMILIE: Inkling. TREVOR: He said inkling? EMILIE He said inkling. TREVOR: Say it again. EMILIE: Inkling. TREVOR: Inkling. EMILIE: Ink—DANNY: Um, hello? EMILIE: Sorry. TREVOR: Sorry.[Beat] Inkling."Naturalism Rampant.
Possibly worse yet is the prevalent profanity. The f-word in various permutations appears on almost every page at least singly, often multiply. Moreover, one wonders whether a playwright, however young, would speak the jargon of reiterated “like”s, “I mean”s and “you know”s to such deadening effect. The play even ends with Danny alone, exclaiming the f-word twice, and nothing else.
The acting is good enough from Jonathan Groff (Danny), Will Rogers (Trevor), Eddie Kaye Thomas (Pete) and Rutina Wesley (Emilie). Walter Bobbie’s direction and the various production values are apt. But, finally, the pseudonymous and eponymous submission of a manuscript is much less absorbing than the tedious submission exacted from the audience.
“Play It Cool” may only play at being cool, but there are moments when, in its warmed-over way, it goes down easily enough.
John Simon has written for over 50 years on theatre, film, literature, music and fine arts for the Hudson Review, New Leader, New Criterion, National Review,New York Magazine, Opera News, Weekly Standard, Broadway.com and Bloomberg News. He reviews books for the New York Times Book Review and Washington Post. He has written profiles for Vogue, Town and Country, Departures and Connoisseur and produced 17 books of collected writings. Mr. Simon holds a PhD from Harvard University in Comparative Literature and has taught at MIT, Harvard University, Bard College and Marymount Manhattan College.
To learn more, visit the JohnSimon-Uncensored.com website.