Written in the Air

Half the fun of New York is in raiding its pockets. On a Sunday night, you can walk through a curtain into a tiny black box like the Big Little Theater and see a sleekly designed bit of theatrical Americana like Seduced. The play, "back by popular demand," is part of the ongoing Sam Shepard festival, in which the company will produce all his plays in a multiyear festival through December 2007. Though it may have fewer resources than some, the Michael Chekhov Theater Company does a good job mining the imagistic possibilities in Shepard's play. The set design is fairly minimalist, as seems fitting for a story about a recluse who has cut off contact with the world of the living: there's a black recliner with a small table, two small palm trees, and an off-white floor. And while it's not a solution that would work for many plays, the striking coordination of the staging and the visual design goes a long way toward making director Richard Whiteman's production a cohesive whole—at one point, turquoise lights match a turquoise dress that matches a turquoise glass.

And sure, the lights are at times a little glaring and the volume of the actors' voices a little too loud for the space. But when a group of performers and a creative team put so much heart and forceful energy into a play, it makes it very easy to have a good time.

The lights first come up on an elderly man with overgrown nails and uncut hair. This is Henry Hackamore (Vance Clemente), a former airplane designer and tycoon—and a thinly veiled substitute for Howard Hughes. He is now a paranoid recluse whose unseen entourage moves him from hidden location to hidden location, for no apparent reason other than his insistence. Hackamore, in a confident, straightforward performance by Vance Clemente, is watched over attentively by his gun-toting bodyguard and servant Raul. Played by Michael Smith Rivera in a powerful portrayal, Raul rubs Hackamore's aching feet and patiently calms his paranoid fits.

To bring him something of the world he's shut out, the dying Hackamore has requested the presence of two women from his past. They are Luna, played by Amy Cassel-Taft with something intelligent and maybe a bit sympathetic underneath a taunting, coquettish veneer, and Miami, played by Jennifer Leigh, whose dialogue is often punctuated with movement. Not surprisingly, they can't deliver what he wants. When Miami embarks on a story about Las Vegas at Hackamore's request, it's immediately apparent that we're never going to hear the end of the tale. Hackamore also forces the two women into a verbal contract and insists that, instead of using ink, they sign it in the air—which was, after all, his domain.

Though the play is short enough that it doesn't drag excessively, there's too much stillness after the intermission. But then again, maybe that's the point. Air after all isn't an easy thing to possess—"Now try to see the space it's not consuming," Hackamore says early in the play to Raul, in discussing the positioning of a palm tree. But the intentionally undefined setting, combined with an assumption that we know whom this is about and when the story is happening, may make it a little hard to grasp for an audience today. It was particularly confusing when Miami said she hadn't been to Las Vegas since 1952. I couldn't help wondering—was that 10 years ago, 20, 54?

When Shepard wrote Seduced, Hughes had been dead for only three years. He certainly has his place in American mythology, and American mythology is still as intangible as ever. And yes, this is a play at least a little about American desire— "It would be great to fly over America in the daytime, though," says Raul. "Just once. Somewhere over Nevada." But I can't help thinking it may have been more powerful—or, at the very least, less abstract—when Hughes still had as strong a hold on the nation's imagination as he had when the play was first produced, in 1979. The Aviator not withstanding, I'm not really sure that people want to own this myth as ferociously as they did at the time.

For a play with more than a touch of the absurd, it's a surprisingly nuts and bolts production guided by the text and accentuated by the visuals. And it may have a particular appeal to those interested in seeing the range of Shepard's work and his place in American theater as a whole, which is why it's perfectly placed as part of a festival. There's an implicit invitation to come see more.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post