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The Lanford Wilson Project

Theatre Review by James Wilson - December 5, 2021

Angela Atwood, Stella Marcus, Carson Alexander,
Jeffrey C. Wolf, Tamra Paselk, Kelsey Claire,
and Steve Carlsen

Photo by Maria Baranova
Lanford Wilson was a pioneer in the Off-Off-Broadway movement in the 1960s, and until his death in 2011, his prodigious body of work was regularly produced on Broadway, Off-Broadway, and regionally. Sadly, only a few of his plays, such as Talley's Folly, Fifth of July, and Burn This, are anthologized and periodically revived, and early hits like Balm in Gilead and The Hot l Baltimore have all but disappeared. Open Circle Play Factory intends to rectify that slight with The Lanford Wilson Project, which showcases two of the playwright's lesser-known works, The Mound Builders and Sympathetic Magic, presented in repertory.

The press materials encourage audiences to attend the plays in the order listed above, designating The Mound Builders as Part I and Sympathetic Magic as Part II in the program. Although they are discrete works and were written more than two decades apart, the plays do indeed complement each other, and they share common themes, analogous characters, and similar contexts. The production elements of both are rather spare, with just a few pieces of furniture and simple costumes, and only two designers, Joe D'Emilio (lighting) and Andrew Oppenheim (sound), are credited. Their contributions effectively fill in important details related to the geographic and atmospheric settings. The no-frills approach puts the emphasis squarely on the writing and the performances.

Originally produced in 1975 (and revived in 2013 by the Signature Theatre Company), The Mound Builders revolves around Professor August Howe (Jeffrey C. Wolf), who is leading an archaeological dig in Blue Shoals, Illinois. He is accompanied by his chief research assistant Dan Loggins (Carson Alexander). Because the dig will last through the summer, they have brought along their family members. These include Loggins's pregnant wife (Kelsey Claire), a gynecologist; Howe's wife Cynthia (Tamra Paselk), a photographer; and August and Cynthia's daughter Kirsten (Stella Marcus). Howe's sister Delia Eriksen (Angela Atwood), a famous novelist and perennial rehab habitué, joins them later and provides wry observation and opens old wounds. Relations among the housemates grow tense throughout the summer, and they are made even tenser by Chad Jasker (Steve Carlsen), the heir to the land on which the dig is taking place. Jasker insinuates himself within the group, and his interests and pursuits exceed the artifacts and remains the excavation may yield.

Mac McCarty, who was mentored by Wilson at Circle Rep (of which the playwright was one of the founders), directs the production with fervency and alacrity. Unfortunately, this is not the best approach for this ruminative and emotionally complex memory play. Some of the earlier scenes, for instance, are pitched with overwrought intensity, and as a result, the ending lacks affecting poignance. In addition, the actors apply Wilson's characteristic and distinctive overlapping dialogue to such a degree that the psychological lives of the characters emerge in small fits. At one point a character tells another that he doesn't "want to talk" but wants "to bludgeon," and this could just as well apply to the production's overall approach. Still, there are moments in which Wilson's lyricism and the depiction of the lost souls emerge in the occasional quietness.

Alexander Spears, Athena Torres, Pethio Dav,
and Mitch Lerner

Photo by Maria Baranova
Sympathetic Magic fares somewhat better. First produced by Second Stage in 1997, the play is an interesting counterpoint to The Mound Builders. Both plays have academics and artists at the center and hinge on acts of betrayal. Whereas the earlier play centers on archaeologists, a gynecologist, a writer, and a photographer, the later one includes astronomers, an anthropologist, a sculptor, and a choir director. The two works also show how intellectuals, who are fascinated with questions of kinship and scientific mysteries, are inept at making interpersonal connections and compassionate decisions. Sympathetic Magic nevertheless offers a more hopeful vision, which is why in The Lanford Wilson Project the play is subtitled "Coming Together" and The Mound Builders is subtitled "Disunion."

Set in the Bay Area, the play begins with astronomer and academic Ian Anderson (Mitch Lerner) contemplating a grain of sand, which represents the puny visible universe compared with the fathomless cosmos in which it floats. Anderson is the center of an even more minuscule galaxy that includes his pregnant girlfriend Barbara (Taylor Lynn Carter); her half-brother, a priest, Don (Matthew Bechtold); and their anthropologist mother Liz Barnard (Katherine King). Also orbiting his world is his research partner Mickey Picco (Alexander Spears) and the smarmy university dean Carl Conklin White (W. Philip Rafferty). Church choir director Pauly Scott (Pethio Day) and Liz's research assistant Susan Olmsted (Athena Torres) complete the constellation.

Individually, the characters look for answers to their metaphysical quandaries in the stars, mythology, religion and art, but possibilities for emotional healing may be found closer to home. Except for a scene of extreme violence that is simultaneously too jarring and not brutal enough (considering the injuries the characters sustain), the company of actors effectively convey the characters' psychic scars and spiritual longing.

The Mound Builders and Sympathetic Magic are minor works by a major playwright, and the streamlined productions do not always show them off in the best light. Still, if The Lanford Wilson Project were to continue, I would willingly go along for the ride. And if they are looking for suggestions, I would recommend a triple bill featuring the three plays that make up the Talley Trilogy.

The Lanford Wilson Project: The Mound Builders (Part I) and Sympathetic Magic (Part II)
Through December 18, 2021
Theatre 5, Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, New York
Tickets and current Performance Schedule: Part I and Part II