nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
September 6, 2008
The three characters in Craig Wright's Lady—childhood friends from a small town in Southern Illinois who've taken very different paths in life, reunited for a day's hunting in the local woods—are in some ways pop-culture archetypes. They're in their late 30s, children of the '80s, living out three different models of how the boys of my generation have grown into dysfunctional men: the stoner, the self-defeating screw-up, and the sell-out. But what makes these three more interesting than the usual run of Gen-X arrested-development types is that we get to see a deeper emotional register than such characters are usually granted. The play's narrative doesn't really hold together, but it almost doesn't matter: the character studies, brought to life by three wonderful actors and director Dexter Bullard, are fascinating on their own.
Kenny, Dyson, and Graham have been friends since grade school; in high school, they, along with Kenny's brother (who died shortly after high school), were known as "The Sultans" (after the Dire Straits song "Sultans of Swing"). Now, nearly 20 years later, they've gone down very different paths: Kenny and Dyson, still living in Illinois, are best friends, but Graham, now a Congressman, has grown a little distant. On one of Graham's increasingly infrequent visits back home, they've gone off for a day of hunting together, with Kenny's dog (the Lady of the play's title, who gets lost in the woods almost immediately upon their arrival, only to become a central element of the plot later in the play).
Kenny, who nominally runs a t-shirt printing business but mostly smokes weed and watches movies, rarely actually making his presence known in his office, is a committed family man, the father of three girls he dearly loves, with a wife battling cancer. He doesn't care much about abstractions or national issues; what matters to him is the day-to-day rhythms of his personal life, admittedly cushioned by a lot of marijuana. (In a moment of both triumph and shame, he admits to smoking the medical marijuana his wife has been prescribed.) He wants to feel recognized, heard, on a personal level, and when the other two start arguing over politics, he focuses more on the ugliness between his friends than on the content of their disagreement. Kenny could easily be a bit of a clown, the comic relief to the sometimes vicious fights between Dyson and Graham, but there's such sincerity, sweetness, and uncomplicated love for his friends, his family, his dog, in Michael Shannon's performance that even when Kenny is being willfully naive, or smoking away his problems, you wish the world would cut him a few more breaks.
Dyson never really lived up to his potential, as they say—instead of going away to college, he got his girlfriend pregnant, they married, and he never left the town he grew up in. He's made out all right professionally—he teaches at the local college—but he's a compulsive womanizer, with a perpetual couple of girlfriends on the string besides his wife. But despite the shambles he's made of his marriage, Dyson loves his now 18-year-old son, Duncan, fiercely and helplessly; he's filled with rage at the state of the world not on his own behalf—he gave up hoping for better things for himself a long time ago—but because that world threatens to damage his precious boy. And since, in Dyson's mind, America is becoming an ever-more-frightening place and his old friend Graham has completely gone over to the dark side, he's constantly looking for a fight.
Paul Sparks fills almost every line Dyson speaks with a sardonic edge that only drops when he talks about what a good, smart kid Duncan is, and in the rare moments where he can tap in to his nearly lost idealism. The way he talks to Kenny might seem dismissive if you didn't feel the history between them; they've worked out this relationship over such a long time they're probably not even conscious of how they sound. (One of my favorite moments in the play is when Kenny confesses they were listening to his daughters' Hannah Montana music all morning; Dyson kept thinking Kenny would change it, and Kenny, well used to it by now, kept waiting for Dyson to ask him to change it—and the fact that they spent an entire drive in this detente says everything you need to know about their relationship.)
Graham, meanwhile, is the one who did get out of town. Elected to Congress at a very young age with a lot of help from Kenny's money (an insurance settlement from his brother's death) and Dyson's brains (he ran the campaign, seemingly on a lark), Graham has settled in and become a true Washington insider, a politician's politician, and a true-faith believer in the war in Iraq, which Dyson bitterly opposes. Graham keeps trying to get Dyson to come to Washington and work for him, both out of a leftover adolescent hero-worship and out of a genuine desire to help extricate both Dyson and Duncan from the messes Dyson has made. The character of Graham is something of a straw man—much less richly drawn than the other two (partly because he doesn't make an actual appearance till midway through the play) and a necessary foil for Dyson—and the back story by which he became a twenty-something Congressman and then has remained in office for all this time didn't entirely ring true to me. But David Wilson Barnes invests him with such a well-balanced mixture of unwitting pompousness and genuine gravitas that you almost see not only how he could have pulled it off, but how he evolved into the politician he's become.
And it's the politician he's become that is at the core of the play's central conflict: last night, after listening to Graham and Dyson argue about politics for hours, Duncan came home and told his father he was ashamed to be his son, and today he's gone off to a Marines recruiting office, inspired by Graham's rhetoric to go "spread democracy." All of which makes Dyson, even more than usual, a torch waiting for a spark, and as he and Kenny wait in the woods for Graham to join them for the day of hunting, and as Kenny refuses to be drawn in to the political arguments, Dyson gets more and more wound up. By the time Graham actually arrives, a violent confrontation is almost inevitable, and eventually ensues. This setup—from the various bits of exposition required to get it into play to the fight itself—feel more than a little forced; although it's a big chunk of the narrative of the play, it's also the least interesting thing about it.
What works here are the relationships; the small, telling character details—Graham snacking on pine nuts from a little ziplock baggie he's brought with him, and Dyson's sneering at them; Kenny quoting both Rambo and Hannah Montana; Dyson carrying around a printout of one of Graham's speeches as fodder for their next argument—and the quality of the work being done by all three performers. I've long thought Michael Shannon and Paul Sparks are two of the finest actors of my generation, and getting the chance to see them together, with a third actor who matches them, is in and of itself something special.