Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.
In "A History of the American Film," a satire which opened Wednesday night at Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater, playwright Christoper Durang operates on several levels of our conciousness.
Should the first level begin to seem obvious or over-familiar, one can muse at a second level on the influence movies have on our lives. Beyond that, it's perfectly possible to do a little silent arguing with the young playwright, whose basic perception is inarguable.
Introduced at last summer's play-wright's conference at Connecticut's O'Neill Center, Durang's satire immediately won bids from the Hartford Stage Company and the Los Angeles Mark Taper Forum as well as Arena Stage.It would be an intructive luxury to see all three productions of a work which might have quite varied, valid stagings.
At all events, with his well-chosen cast and constant ingenuity of staging, David Chambers, who recently directed the Kreeger's "Streamer," has caught the several levels of Durang's thesis, which achieves that most desirable stage effect of forcing thought into laughter. For those who have been missing the sophistication of humor in our preoccupations with solemnity, Durang is a wonderfully welcome voice and I hope he can stick to his satirical style.
Durang's theme is that 50 years of American film have done more than entertain us. They have influenced how we think through a continuous thread of visual shorthand. Durang's generation has grown up watching the film favorites and cliches of three generations on TV. Personal eccentricities of star performers, customs, ethics, morality have streaked across young eyes with effects never intended initially. We meet the idiot viewers and they are us.
While watching these old flicks on odd-hour TV. Durang has noted continuing characteristics. What may have begun as Lillian Gish somehow evolved into a composite of innocent flab which Durang names Loretta, for the long enduring Miss Young.
There's the gritty, hard, soft-hearted type typified by his Jimmy, for Cagney, Bogart et al. There's the hard girl Durang names Bette, though he might have called her Joan for Crawford. There's Hank, the simple, for Fonda, whose family here includes Ma and Pa Joad from Steinbeck. There's Eve, for Arden, Blondell and Sheridan, the wise-cracker men don't notice "that way."
The composite characters move from the '20s into the times of "The Exorcist" and "Sensaround." after sorties in to war movies, "Casablance," "The Ten Commandments" and Lana Turnerisms. It is a valid point that these images are interchangeable through time, and flick addicts will have a gorgeous time recognizing hoary gems.
Underneath this camp, all of which is not exactly new, Durang is observing the power of images, how we have grown to accept a flash of emotions, however phony, as the real thing, at the same time allowing that, yes, some of these emotions are true for us all. It is a Neverland of those who've been brought up and touched by the flicks.
Tony Straiges' scenic shorthand for a universal moviehouse is a delightful beginning and so is the singalong (with bouncing ball) piano by busy-busy-busy Robert Fisher. Marjorie Slaiman has outdone herself in the costume department and I relished especially the use of sound effects.
On all level, the kreeger has a rich, fruity pudding indeed.