nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 17, 2005
First of all, let me say that I have tremendous respect and admiration for the folks at the If Ensemble who, in selecting an inaugural production to launch themselves in New York's so-competitive off-off-Broadway scene, have chosen a challenging, unusual piece: Lanford Wilson's Serenading Louie. I wish more companies would stretch themselves and audiences by digging into the rich and diverse modern canon and producing work of this caliber.
Second, let me congratulate them on how much they've accomplished first time at bat. They've brought together a talented team of collaborators, all of whom have clearly worked hard on the play. They've done a commendable job producing and promoting the piece. And they've given audiences a look at a really compelling play that deserves to be seen.
Wilson wrote Serenading Louie more than 30 years ago. It's a kind of cautionary tale about the Silent Majority (i.e., Wilson's own generation, the folks who came of age in the late '50s/early '60s, a placid era sandwiched between more dramatic defining shared events like World War II and the Counterculture). For these people, the traditional American idea of success—the kind that protagonists of Arthur Miller plays pursue so blindly and recklessly—feels fraudulent; but it's so easy to lapse into. Alex is a wunderkind lawyer who is about to be drafted to run for a seat in Congress; he's got a romantic streak that makes him infatuated with the anti-war activism of college kids a dozen years younger than himself, but he's also strongly pragmatic. His pal Carl, who was the star of the football team when they went to Northwestern University in Chicago, is now an unstoppably successful (and wealthy) real estate developer. Carl is married to Mary, another friend from college; she's a spoiled daughter of privilege who is now, somewhat inexplicably, having an affair with Carl's accountant. Alex is married to Gabby, who, significantly, did not go to Northwestern; she's in a weird unexplainable funk at the moment, and he's not exactly sure why he's so completely exasperated by everything she does.
Wilson sketches out telling details about these four in fascinating ways in Serenading Louie. The first act feels conventional and even a little turgid as it lays out the basic circumstances of the story. But Act Two keeps pulling us up short. Its first scene—the one that director Lisa Mitchell and her cast pull off with the most assurance—fills in informational gaps about the characters in unexpected ways: the relationships we thought we comprehended get turned on their heads as we come to know these four people more deeply. And its final scene, in which the various conflicts arrive at simultaneous denouements, pushes daringly out of conventional narrative structure, turning the play's conclusion into a scary collision of moments that are almost unbearably visceral.
Mitchell and her actors try to make it feel contemporary, but there's an essential Vietnam Era-quality about this piece that makes it feel very much of its time (early 1970s) though not dated. People don't behave quite the same today as they did then, and so there's a tension between the completely unaffected casualness of the actors and the more buttoned-up characters they're called upon to play. That said, all four of the young performers here do commendable work. Nate Rubin conveys Carl's inner conflicts very effectively (though he doesn't look like the going-to-seed ex-quarterback described by the other characters). John Samuel Jordan is convincing as Alex, projecting particularly well the longstanding camaraderie with Carl and Mary that's lacking in his relationship with his wife. Erin DePaula plumbs Mary's emotions when called upon, but she seems smarter and more responsible than her flighty character ought to. Similarly, Cadence Allen eventually communicates Gabby's sub/unconscious rootlessness, but in the play's early scenes she comes across as more of a ditz than she probably should.
Mitchell's staging is sensitive, but the pacing is slack in places: most of the scenes, especially the final one, feel like they should move as quickly as the excellent central one in which the characters reminisce about their college days. The production values are fine, including a realistic set by Juliet Gabrielle, appropriate costumes by Felicia Maria, and evocative lighting by Lucie Novak.