What a piece of work is this Telemachus, the Hamlet-like brooder of playwright Jason Gray Platt’s modern family tragedy, “Crown of Shadows: The Wake of Odysseus.” Spoiled and sullen, he buries his head in books and sneers at the parade of craven suitors who waltz through his house, seeking to annex the bedroom of his regal mother, Penelope, and thereby assume control of their sun-baked island.
Portrayed with a proper degree of disaffection by Michael Morrow Hammack, this manchild vacillates between long periods of embittered inertia and spasms of frustrated rage — as vented in terrifying fashion on his sometime girlfriend, the comely Calliope (Julia Proctor). He has the instincts of both caveman and rational man, a dichotomy that raises in this world premiere at Round House Theatre the potentially unsettling question of which aspect of Telemachus’s nature will win out.
For elusive reasons, the playwright strays from some of the piece’s interesting possibilities and leads us instead to a pat, sensationalized conclusion, one that leaves you feeling that what director Blake Robison has staged in Bethesda is only a promising draft. Like his compelling central character, Platt seems to waver, in his case, over how to bind the looser stitches of his episodic tale, based on the domestic complications outlined in Homer’s “Odyssey.”
As a result, “Crown of Shadows: The Wake of Odysseus” — a title with an unfortunate “Release the Kraken!” sound to it — snaps and crackles tantalizingly, but never pops. The contemporary tension Platt imparts to the relationship between Telemachus and his clotheshorse of a mother, Deborah Hazlett’s serenely elegant Penelope, is not sufficiently replicated in the play’s other scenes, especially those pertaining to Penelope’s myriad suitors, all played by Jefferson A. Russell.
The fates of Telemachus and Penelope — left behind and in the dark for 20 years, as the mythic Odysseus deals with the Trojan War and other far-off torments — seem a source of thematic richness for young playwrights being staged in Washington these days. In Woolly Mammoth Theatre’s “Current Nobody,” dramatist Melissa Jane Gibson turned the Homeric tables and looked at the social implications after a careerist mom (named Pen) disappears for 20 years.
In Studio Theatre’s “Penelope,” Enda Walsh transformed the vigil of the suitors into an existential act of Beckettian absurdism, as they wait in an empty swimming pool for a sign from Penelope — and the homicidal wrath of her returning-hero husband.
For these writers and for Platt, the war’s home front is the riper battlefield: The return we know Odysseus eventually makes provides both a juicy epilogue and a resonant metaphor for a modern world keenly aware that hostilities play out both during combat, and after.
One hopes with his acute ear for the troubling static in a young man’s life, Platt can locate the pertinent core of “Crown of Shadows,” which charts Telemachus’s psychological development from introverted adolescence to potential manly inheritor of his father’s formidable mantle. We’re on an unnamed island, on which the ruling class is growing impatient with the absence of its king, and the omnipresent paparazzi lurk outside Penelope’s door, ready to pounce as she receives each applicant for her husband’s throne.
“Crown of Shadows” is both faithful to and a riff on the original. Just as the writing of Gibson and Walsh becomes at times too conscious of their source, Platt’s play sometimes reflects a pedantic reliance on literary details. Misha Kachman’s set, with its epic feel and myriad allusions to classical ruins (and a bar sign advertising a beer brand called “Mythos”) extends the production’s tendency to over-literalness. A shallow pool at center stage seems for most of the show’s two hours a staging encumbrance, and then it’s used for transparent shock value in a final tableau.
Because many scenes must be enacted behind the pool, Kachman’s impressive landscape can feel a little underpopulated. The confrontations charted in “Crown of Shadows” might convey more intensity in more intimate surroundings than on Round House’s sprawling main stage. As it stands, Hazlett’s poise is an asset, as her imperturbable tone advances the mystery of what she’s up to. Hammack and Proctor have the tougher tasks of making seamless some rather inexplicably sharp shifts in motivation and personality. Russell, meanwhile, does fairly well by the quick-change mandates of his multiple parts.
The play is watchable and sometimes absorbing, as you seek to comprehend what life would be like for a young man faced with enormous responsibilities and no dependable model for how he is supposed to behave. With some patience and guidance, too, this playwright’s voice will speak with more command.
By Jason Gray Platt. Directed by Blake Robison. Set, Misha Kachman; costumes, Bill Clarke; lighting, Kenton Yeager; music and sound, Matthew M. Nielson; fight choreography, Casey Kaleba; dramaturg, Jessica Burgess. About two hours. Through May 6 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East West Hwy., Bethesda. Call 240-644-1100 or visit www.roundhousetheatre.org.