One wonders what convinced its producers to bring Wrong Mountain, David Hirson's new play which opened last night at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, to Broadway.
The story - embittered poet writes a successful first play on a bet - is nothing more than an awkwardly calculated situation in which the great questions (Example: "What is the ultimate value of art; does it exist to entertain or challenge?") can more or less naturally be asked. (In fact, lengthy stretches of the play are given over to extensive discussion of just such questions. This aspect of the play reminded me of a bad night at a good University debating society.)
The characters are incomplete, only existing to mouth various sides of the arguments and at worst to try and fail to provoke the audience with lines like [Broadway theater is] "sanctimonious kitsch that's embraced as high art by an audience of suburban morons dim-witted enough to believe that by going to a play they're having some sort of cultural experience." (To be fair these pronouncements excited and enthralled a group of teenagers sitting in front of me at the performance I attended, so there must be some audience for whom this sort of thing is new.)
And, we could do with a little less symbolism. A lot less, actually.
Just as you're about to write the evening off as yet another interesting experiment which didn't work, Hirson tosses in the one real question of the evening; "is it possible to devote a life to passions misspent, climbing, as it were, the wrong mountain?" Seriously interesting question this, but only partially and ineptly answered.
We are given two absolutely solid performances from Ron Rifkin and Daniel Davis. Rifkin, as the minor poet and playwright-on-a-bet Henry Dennett, struts and frets, rages and confronts, bullies and vents his anger and frustration on everyone in sight in what can only be termed a tour de force, an accomplished and winning performance. Rifkin does nothing in half-measures, but does allow his abusive and appalling antics throughout most of the play give way, in the last few moments, to an epiphany of simplicity and effect.
Daniel Davis, as festival director Maurice Montesor, is an absolute delight. Montesor is a man who has lived his life with enthusiasm, grace and dignity, cherishing the good as he attempts to make the best of the bad. His scenes, especially with the angst-ridden Dennett, glow with a sense of compassion and understanding. Davis is also a superb comedian; when he's not standing around glowing, he's convulsing the audience in good, old-fashioned belly laughs, sometimes with only a raised eyebrow or well-timed sneer.
Unfortunately, these two excellent performances, as good as they are, don't quite compensate for what is at best an amateurish, dreary evening at the theatre. I agree wholeheartedly that Art should Challenge, but at $65 a ticket, it must also Entertain. Ultimately, Wrong Mountain does neither.
Wrong Mountain by David Hirson. Directed by Richard Jones. Starring Ron Rifkin and Daniel Davis, with Beth Dixon, Anne Dudek, Tom Riis Farrell, Reg Flowers, Jody Gelb, Daniel Jenkins, Ilana Levine, Bruce Norris, Mary Schmidtberger, Michael Winters. Scenery and costumes designed by Giles Cadle. Lighting designed by Jennifer Tipton. Sound designed by John Gromada.
Theatre: Eugene O'Neill Theatre, 230 West 49th Street, New York, NY 10036 (Between Broadway & 8th Ave)
Running time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission.
Audience: May be inappropriate for 15 and under. Children under 4 are not permitted in the theatre. (Sexual situations, no nudity, strong language)
Schedule: Monday through Saturday at 8 PM, Wednesday and Saturday at 2 PM
Ticket prices: $65, $47.50 and $25 Wednesday Matinee: $55, $42.50 and $25 A $1 Restoration Charge will be added to the price of each ticket. This charge is for the restoration and preservation of the theatre.
Standing room: Available at the Box Office only when the performance is completely sold out.
Tickets in person: Box Office hours Monday through Saturday 10 AM to 8 PM, Sunday Noon to 6 PM.
Tickets online: www.telecharge.com
Tickets by phone: Tele-charge at (212 )239-6200, or outside the NY metro area (800) 545-2559, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Tickets by snail mail: Wrong Mountain, PO Box 998, Times Square Station, New York, NY 10108-0998 Must include $1 per ticket restoration charge.
Tickets by E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org