The Washington theater scene at this moment seems, at first glace, to exclude the possibility of common ground: Tom Stoppard's "Travesties" at the Eisenhower Theater, a giddy effusion of intellectual slapstick and verbal cardsharpery; Simon Gray's "Otherwise Engaged" at the National, which begins as conventional British drawing-room comedy and turns into a rancid little sick joke; David Rabe's "Streamers" at the Kreeger, a gaping wound of a play, strewn with torn flesh and lacerated spirits; and Tim Grundmann's "Bride of Siroco" at the New Playwright's Theater of Washington, a harmless, good-natured revue that makes "NBC's Saturday Night" look positively seditious by comparison.
But "Bride of Siroco" aside, there's more similarity of theme here than anyone could reasonably anticipate. Rabe, Gray and Stoppard, at some rock-bottom level of creative consciousness, are all dealing with people who are looking for solutions and not finding them, individuals caught in a morass of forces beyond their comprehension or control.
What's fascinating is the divergence of attack, and the resulting disparity of effect. Each play stands at a different remove from "reality," both in respect to appearances and underlying impart.
"Streamers," however diffuse and unkempt it may be, is the only one that packs a visceral wallop. The ambiance is military, as in Rabe's previous "The Basic Training of Pavio Hummel" and "Sticks and Bones," and this time the setting is a Virginia barracks in 1965 with Vietnam hovering morbidly in the background. The barracks, particilarly as abetted by Tony Straiges' brutally stark setting, is like the sanatorium of Mann's "Magic Mountain" - it's a cloistered universe of its own, with its own codes of speech, behavior and honor. Its isolation turns it into an emotional pressure cooker. The barracks too, again like "Magic Mountain," is a waiting room for death, and its inmates are obsessed by the topic of their relative chances.
"Streamers," however, is not about war, as such, but the barriers between men that make war possible. The main characters spend most of their time playing games - testing each other and themselves, probing, staking out territory, wondering how much of themselves they can safely expose, wondering how much trust they can count on in return. [WORD ILLEGIBLE] alliances form and reform as the probes yield shifting responses. When the lines of tension are accidentally severed, all hell breaks loose - the games turn into vicious combat.
Carlyle, the ghetto black whose attempts to "fit in" to the barracks clique set off the explosion, is himself the most pitiable of its victims. "How'm I gonna get back to the world?" he moans when the carnage is over, and one shudders before the knowledge that no answere is possible. What redoubles the force of all this is that Rabe has constructed these characters from the inside out - they are, each of them, palpitating clots of feeling, encircled in flesh.
"Otherwise Engaged," set in contemporary London, also peers at a tight little personal enclave, and asks what makes it tick. Gray seems to be asserting that if you turn over the rock of domestic serenity in today's neurotic society, you'll find a can of wriggling worms - insecurity, jealousy, lust, frustration and hate. But the characters are such sticks to begin with, its' hard to work up and much concern. Gray doesn't want to cut too deep anyway, because he's as much eager to "entertain" us with clever little barks and retorts as he is to plumb the motivations of his conversational circle.
By the time the curtain comes down, we have learned, to be sure, that things were not what they seemed, that the happy little home isn't happy at all, and that placid, tolerant, understanding Simon, the anti-hero of the piece, is pretty much of a rotter in his own genteel fashion. But because the author is stradding the fence separating fashionably sophisticated entertainment from dramatic art, we don't feel one whit closer to or more comprehending of Simon or anyone else in the cast. It is left to the performance, then, to stir us in one way or another to mirth or sympathy or aversion.
In this, the National Theater production is quite fortunate. Tom Courtenay's Simon is a splendidly apt and polished portrayal, and the rest of the small troupe, astutely directed by Harold Pinter, is more than equal to the demands of Gray's smartly crafted banter.
If "Otherwise Engaged" is dependent on performance values, "Travesties" is even more so. The Kennedy Center production, directed by Britain's Peter Wood, could hardly be more blessed in this respect, John Wood's acting as Henry Carr, the protagonist, is such a virtuoso feat that it not only obscures the shortcomings of some fellow players but those of the play itself. In "Travesties," as in "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead," Stoppard has put a nonentity in the middle of heavy doings - Carr presiding over the intersection of Joyce, Tzara and Lenin in Zurich after World War I.
It is precisely this premise, which allows Carr to mull over such questions as "what is art?" and "what is revolution?" amidst this cozy philosophical coterie, that gives the play the appearance of kinship with Gray's comedy and Rabe's drama. For Stoppard, it is a perfect pretext for his brand of verbal juggling, but for the characters and ideas, it's a dead end. Stoppard never confronts the issues he raises, he just toys with them, fondling them in conundrums and puns. It is one thing to have profundity parading as fun, as Beckett does in "Waiting for Godot," for instance; it is quite another to try to pass off fun as profundity. Stoppard may not be much of a thinker or a dramatist, but he surely qualifies as the champion intellectual name-dropper of the decade.
And to genuine feeling, Stoppard seems quite impervious. The one affecting moment in "Travesties" occurs as an aside, when John Wood plays a bit of Beethoven's "Appassionata" on an upright, and it spirits one wholly away from the trivial productions, "Travesties" is by far the most dazzling, elaborate and inventive. The play itself, though, is the one of least consequence. I'm not trying to say it's easy to turn out the kind of article Stoppard specializes in - literate guff spiced with jokes - I'm just asking whether it's really worth the effort.