Off Broadway Reviews
Holden, directed by Anisa George and written by her in collaboration with the ensemble, takes its title from writer J. D. Salinger's iconic character Holden Caulfield, the alienated teenaged narrator of The Catcher in the Rye. The play takes place within the reclusive Salinger's writing compound (splendidly designed in great detail by Nick Benacerraf), where he wrestles to complete a new work, sections of which we can see hanging from clips on a clothesline.
Sharing the confined space with Salinger (Bill George), indeed permanently locked within the bunker-like compound, are two of the muse/demons. One takes the form of John Hinckley Jr. (Scott R. Sheppard), the man who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan, and the other is Mark David Chapman (Jaime Maseda), the killer of John Lennon. What these two have in common is that each of their real-life counterparts had a connection with The Catcher in the Rye. Chapman was carrying a copy of the novel when he was arrested, and investigators found a copy in Hinckley's hotel room.
Conspiracy theorists and armchair psychologists may delight in this coincidence, but George & Co. uses it to take us on two separate journeys. One is to the interior landscape of Salinger's mind, tormented by self-doubt, a loathing of what his famous protagonist would call the "phoniness" of fame, and unshakable recollections of his experiences as a soldier during World War II, including horrific images of the mounds of decimated bodies he encountered at a liberated concentration camp at war's end. Within this scenario, Hinckley and Chapman can be seen as Salinger groupies, eager for him to finish his work and send it out to the world. They serve as cheerleaders and always-on-the-ready assistants. "I smell an ending; we are so close!" declares Chapman, as Salinger tinkers with what appears to be the final chapter.
But idol hands are the devil's workshop, and when Chapman and Hinckley have nothing else to do, they engage in horseplay, get into fights, and argue about acts of violence. When they get into this kind of mood, they also feed into Salinger's ongoing post-traumatic stress disorder by reenacting scenes culled from his memories, battle scenes that are greatly enhanced by Alex Bechtel's sound design.
In this, they are joined by a third party, a character called Zev (Matteo Scammell), a dangerously loose cannon who claims to have zero interest in Salinger or in his writing. Indeed, he has no idea why he's there. A sort of anti-muse, he encourages the author to walk away from his work, and thinks of his colleagues as low-level amateurs, the failed assassin and the shooter of a single individual whose fame was what elevated his killer's status.
Zev represents the kind of sociopathic mass murderer we have been seeing with greater frequency in recent years. His sole ambition is to break the record for murdering the most individuals at one time. "You never heard of Anders Breivik?," he asks. "Norwegian guy? He actually killed 77, but eight of them were bomb deaths, but I don't wanna get involved in that shit. If we're just concentrating on clean one-to-one, aim and fire targets, the record's 69. Which is a lot, but I think I could do better." Then, looking directly at us in the audience, he pointedly suggests that a crowded theater would be a good place to pull this off. "BAM! BAM! BAM!" Later, when he manages to escape from the compound, we fidget nervously in our seats, wondering where he might turn up next.
As long as Holden links the unearthly presence of Chapman, Hinckley, and Zev with the living character of Salinger, Anisa George's solid direction and the tight-knit cast keep us fully engaged. Even a tangential discussion about the Hindu epic "Bhagavad Gita" fits well into the overall structure, and mostly the play maintains a balance between the darkly comic and darkly violent. It only loses its footing when, towards the end, the examination of violence takes over completely, and we are paying more attention to the interloper Zev than we are to Salinger. The author is left to his own devices, to wrestle with himself or to find some solace in spending a little time with his daughter Peggy (George Truman), who shows up periodically seeking his attention and clutching her well-worn copy of a book she loves, one which is decidedly not The Catcher in the Rye.