Do you have a desire to see a baby stoned to death onstage? If so, hurry to The American Place Theatre to see their production of Saved, Edward Bond's controversial 1965 play, which opened there Sunday night. Truth to tell, there are few other reasons to see the play.
The famous scene, which occurs near the end of the first act, is startling. After Pam (Amy Ryan) leaves the baby in the unwilling care of its father, Fred, (Norbert Butz), he and his friends proceed to taunt, torture, and eventually kill it. Unflinchingly honest in its brutality, this scene left the audience at the performance I attended stunned and silent.
It is a shame, therefore, that the play is not about the baby's death. In terms of the overall arc of the play, it is just one of a series of events that occurs in the strange relationship of Pam and Len (Pete Starrett). What the play is supposed to be about, however, is never clear. Is it about society or religion's failure to instill morals to people? Is it a parody or deconstruction of lower class English family life in the 1960s? Can we tell? Does it matter?
Ultimately, it does not. Robert Woodruff's direction lacks the focus to make the complicated relationships between the characters understandable (or palatable) that one needs if the script provides no help. Douglas Stein's set design serves to reinforce the harshness of the play--the set traps the characters, casting an oppressive pall over each scene, whether or not it necessarily needs it. The characters frequently get lost among the cinderblock walls, steel doors, and sometimes impenetrable English accents.
While the performances are all decent, none are fully successful. In general, the actors seem to do best in the earliest scenes of the play. Starrett, especially, in the play's largest role, succeeds at creating an idealistic young man, though his emotional journey seems less truthful as the play unfolds. Ryan, likewise, has life at the beginning of the play, but doesn't seem to know what to do with Pam later, leaving the character at the beginning and the end essentially the same.
Butz's character is generally the most watchable and interesting in the play, and seems to display levels the other characters don't. Even his influence is muted, though, as the script and the direction don't give him a chance to elevate the play often enough to make a difference. There are times when Terence Rigby, as Pam's father, Harry, seems destined to be the show's comic relief, but when the character becomes more important later on, the transition and whatever effect his changes are supposed to have become lost.
Perhaps, if helmed by another director, Saved might be the shattering, dangerous play that was banned by the Lord Chamberlain in 1965. As directed by Woodruff, though, the play's point and importance - if any - are lost. Woodruff does succeed, however, at capturing some magic in his scene changes. Staged in full view of the audience, in lighting (designed by David Weiner) brighter than that used in most of the rest of the play, the transitions succeed at commanding drama and immediacy where the rest of the production frequently fails. Whether the actors are arranged in a tableau, or moving slightly, it is amazing how much character is frequently conveyed through the moments between scenes. Should Woodruff learn how to apply that technique to the rest of the play, his production of Saved might, eventually, succeed at what it is attempting.
Photo Pete Starrett, Terence Rigby, Randy Danson, and Amy Ryan. Photo by Ken Howard © 2001
Theatre for a New Audience