The Wooden Breeks
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 18, 2006
I've heard it said that whimsical fantasy is just about the hardest thing to pull off in the theatre. Certainly the creative personnel involved with staging Glen Berger's remarkable play The Wooden Breeks at MCC Theater have done just about everything in their power to negate the pixilated, otherworldly charms of the piece and turn it into a leaden, heavy catastrophe. I was provided a copy of Berger's script, the perusal of which makes clear that, time and time again, director Trip Cullman ignored or second-guessed his playwright, making a sad shambles of a show that could have been sweet, spry, smart, and lighter than air.
Berger's story is narrated by Tom Bosch, a tinker (for this is more than a hundred years ago) in Scotland. Years before, Tom fell in love with Hetty Grigs, but she turned him down to run away with a sailor, who in turn abandoned her but left her with a little boy. So Tom again asked Hetty to marry him, and this time she accepted the proposal—"As soon as I return from a brief but unavoidable errand out of town." Hetty handed Tom her baby, called Wicker, and disappeared.
Now—as our play begins—Tom is stuck minding 9-year-old Wicker on the outskirts of a town and on the outskirts of life. Both are waiting for Hetty to come back, even though at least one of them is reasonably certain she never will. Tom bides the time and provides a kind of comfort to Wicker and himself by spinning tales in front of the fire, tales purporting to explain where Hetty has gone and why she's not returned. What follows—the play proper, for this has all been prologue—is a long and elaborate concoction, the last of Tom's tales about Hetty, about a town called Brood and its eccentric inhabitants, especially a lighthouse keeper named Jarl von Hoother who has lived indoors all his life with mountains of books codifying the world he's never seen first-hand. The lighthouse contains a beacon fueled by a meager amount of oil; eventually Jarl comes to realize that if he's ever to get out, he'll need to use that oil, thus putting the light out. Some of The Wooden Breeks—a good deal of it, actually—revolves around how to make that choice, and its consequences.
Elsewhere in Brood are a vicar who is wooing a melancholy lady named Mrs. Nelles; she lost her daughter a long time ago and ever since has refused to re-open her place of business, the town's only public house, thus denying her fellow citizens of much-wanted spirits. There's also a pair of lovebirds, romantic young Tricity Tiara and her handsome beau Armitage Shanks. Young Wicker is in the story, too; and darned if Hetty doesn't materialize as well, in the guise of traveling saleslady Anna Livia Spoon, purveyor of a singular and ingenious device, a bell to be installed at gravesites (with the pull-cord running down into the coffin), to provide a means for folks unfortunately buried alive to attract the attention of the living.
Tom keeps figuring in the story, also; or at least his own story keeps blending into his made-up one. Tom asks: "What's been known to visit a man unexpectedly, then worm its way through every defense til it collars the heart? What spellbinding force exists in Creation that can make a man do things he wouldn't imagine doing in a million years?" It takes him the entire length of his increasingly complicated and unyielding tale to learn the answer for himself; and the direction that points him at The Wooden Breeks' conclusion is not where you think. Berger's play is as canny and precise a puzzle as his earlier Underneath the Lintel, and every bit as wise.
But you wouldn't know it from MCC's production. The heart and joy at the center of this piece have been sucked out rather systematically: Paul Whitaker's lighting design ranges from dim to dark to very dark with almost no relief; Beowulf Boritt's set is a wooden monolith bearing no relation to lighthouse or other dwelling but meant to serve as both simultaneously; and Anita Yavich's costumes, jarringly, look like designs for some mannerist/horror-show version of Disney's Beauty and the Beast, with vestigial representaions of each character's occupation grafted on their clothes (Mrs Nelles has a keg built into her bustle and taps in her hat; Armitage, oddly, has a chair back attached to his suit jacket).
The actors try to bring life to the piece, notably Adam Rothenberg (a very sympathetic Tom), Veanne Cox (humorous as the wry, dry Mrs. Nelles), Steve Mellor (as the pragmatic vicar), and the invaluable T. Ryder Smith (as poor lonesome Jarl van Hoother). But Trip Cullman's direction traps them in a wrongheadedly heavy interpretation of the play, and this despite Berger's own urging, in the script, to remember that "'to brood' means not only 'to mull darkly over events long past' but also 'to await for new life to hatch'."
Breeks, by the way, is a Scottish word for trousers; wooden breeks, young Wicker Grigs informs us, means a coffin. Berger's beautiful play is all about climbing out of the wooden breeks we sometimes dig ourselves into; but the sad fact is that this MCC production is all hole, with no sign of light anywhere. I hope this is not the last New York sees of this singular work; that would be a terrible waste. For now, though, only a hint of the life-affirming wisdom contained in The Wooden Breeks can be gleaned at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.