Doris to Darlene, A Cautionary Valentine
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
December 9, 2007
Jordan Harrison's Doris to Darlene: A Cautionary Valentine is filled with yearning people unable to express their emotions in words, people so inarticulate in the face of their own longing that most of the play's language consists of them narrating and describing their own experiences and actions, rather than speaking to each other. Instead of words, they supposedly channel their emotions through music—a single melody, in fact, running through the play's three different narratives in three different centuries. The melody is Wagner's "Liebestod," which ties together the stories of King Ludwig II, the 18-year-old King of Bavaria who was Wagner's patron and had a passionate crush on him; Darlene DuPont, aka Doris Unsworth, a mixed-race girl-group singer from Detroit in the early '60s who marries the record producer who brings her fame; and the Young Man (Jacob), a 21st century high school student struggling with his sexual identity and fixated on Mr. Campani, his gay music appreciation teacher. Wagner, of course, wrote the melody in question, and the play tracks his struggles to compose his later works, watched over and lusted after by the young king. Darlene rises to fame with a pop song built on the "Liebestod"'s melody (or so the play says; my musically unsophisticated ear wouldn't have made the connection by hearing the two), marries her white producer, and then sees her career eclipsed by the British Invasion. And the young man keeps Darlene and the Daybreakers on his iPod as he studies Wagner, falling in love with both the music and his teacher, with a few misguided detours into sexual awakening along the way.
I say the characters "supposedly" channel their feeling through music because the play's biggest flaw is that this translation—sublimation?—doesn't ever ring emotionally true. The musical metaphor seems to be more of a structural schematic for the play than an actual source of meaning for the characters—for the most part, I didn't feel their passion for music as more than a plot device, or understand their connection to the particular song in question, or even, in some cases, understand their emotional connections at all. It's no coincidence that the most resonant characters, and the strongest performances, are those where the connection to the music actually makes sense: David Chandler's Wagner, lost in his fever to compose, and Tom Nelis's Mr. Campani, a former singer who had to accept he would never be great, and teaches music instead of performing it. But the connections among and between the characters feel tenuous. There's no heat at all, for example, between Doris/Darlene and her producer, Vic--which could be taken as a cynical comment on the illusory nature of both pop songs and romance, except that their passion for music feels arbitrary, too (especially Vic's love of Wagner and his use of it to create Darlene's hits). And though Jacob's coming of age is handled sweetly, his choice of love objects (both Darlene and the Daybreakers and the acerbic Mr. Campani) never makes sense.
Because of the narration, Harrison is often writing prose more than dialogue;although the language is usually wonderfully composed, the technique seems to pop little chunks out of the play and turn them into a series of individual set pieces rather than an integrated whole.The third person delivery sometimes works, when the characters really are absorbing information or experiencing emotions they wouldn't know how to describe directly—but too much of the time, it either slows down the pacing to a crawl or further flattens the characters. And Les Waters's direction seems to emphasize rather than add nuance to the stylization, so that the actors give almost every narrated line a punch or a pause, and deliver most of them directly to the audience rather than commenting on or addressing one another.
The production is elegant and simple, with Christal Weatherly's costumes standing out; they give a colorful, visually elegant sense of the timeline, and allow the actors to easily layer roles on top of their base identities with witty accessories. Takeshi Kata's simple set—an angled box full of doors and spiked with trim in bright-lit bubble-gum pink—is anchored by a turntable in the middle that allows two rings to rotate in opposite directions, so that furniture and actors from one story can spin past those from another story, and the back wall can open and close to swallow them. It's a sharp effect, though it's a little overused, becoming a staple feature of the scene changes by midway through Act 1.Doris to Darlene ends with a poetic and evocative monologue about the evanescent nature of music, the way a melody connects people across time and space. Unfortunately, this monologue is the only place where the connection between the three stories makes any emotional sense—and in fact, where the Wagner and Darlene stories seem to have any deeply felt emotions at all.