After one has written "King of the Jews," what is there left to do? In "Regina," Leslie Epstein attempts to follow his brilliant, grotesque and searing novel of the Holocaust with an equally apocalyptic view of America--expressed through the summer experiences of a middle-aged actress in a New York City simmering on the verge of explosion. By comparison, the characters seem puny and the plot insignificant. "Regina" should have been written first. At least then it could have been taken more seriously as the third piece of fiction of a developing, obviously talented writer.
Regina, a 44-year-old mother of two, separated from her photographer husband, has taken leave from her theater/film critic position with a New York magazine to return to acting. Her first stage triumph had been in the '60s as Nina in "The Sea Gull." When Andrew, the director of that production, invites her to join a new revival of the Chekhov drama, she assumes she will be playing Nina again.
Sunday morning, sitting on the bare stage with the rest of the cast, she hears Andrew beginning the same introduction he had given some 20 years before. Her mind wanders back to graduate school days in the Yale Drama School, her old love for Andrew, and his explosive anti-establishment, antinuclear stage production, which was closed down after the first performance. After 8 1/2 pages of minutely detailed stream of memory, the reading begins. Nina's lines rush forth from Regina, her voice high, excited and bubbly like a young girl's. Everyone is stunned--she is supposed to be playing Irina Arkadina, the aging actress. Regina dashes from the rehearsal, develops a migraine headache on the subway and misses her stop. Eventually, almost disabled with pain, she finds herself in a menacing black-Hispanic neighborhood and takes sanctuary in a storefront church. There she has her first encounter with the strange faith healer who becomes her emotional crutch through the following traumatic weeks.
Those 8 1/2 pages are an example of one of the major weaknesses of the book. As with long spells of explanatory exposition on stage, it gets in the way of the action. Epstein tries to cover too much ground. While the passages that show Regina absorbing each passing experience into the dramatic texture of her role are kind of fun, the frequent flashbacks and long, wide-ranging discussions seem to go beyond the reality of the various situations and simply become the voice of the author.
Some writers take the reader inside their characters' skin, but there is a barrier between the reader and almost everything that happens in "Regina." Perhaps because the conversations aren't really conversational. Perhaps because we are forever being told about what has already happened, or what she is thinking about, rather than being put in the midst of the happening. Even so, Epstein is a skillful writer. While we may not become emotionally involved, we are carried along as he pulls his many strings, weaves them together and overlaps their effects--rehearsals and preparations for the play, the strain of the drought on the city, which forces the play to open early, the increasing numbers of homeless people camping on the banks of the river, the rapist-murderer's fourth strike in her own apartment project, her teen-age son's frightening quasi-religious transformation, her husband's pressuring to return, the sudden death of her mother and, of course, the faith healer.
It is difficult, considering Regina's intensely rationalistic-realistic frame of reference, to accept her obsession with the faith healer. Yet ironically, some of the most vivid scenes are those involving this strange little man. Although the healer is diametrically opposite in physical appearance and temperament, Epstein invests this mysterious, bald, pudding-faced charlatan with some of the same magical qualities of I.C. Trumpelman, the larger than life hero/villain of "King of the Jews." Comparing their techniques is rather fascinating, as with these excerpts from "King of the Jews": "Into this tumult . . . strode Trumpelman, pulling sweets from his pockets . . . Slowly . . . as the drops released their magical centers, the children fell silent, rolled over, held still." And again--"Trumpelman leaned over the wizened little face . . . He had sucked one of his sweetmeats to within a millimeter of its liquid center. He passed the fragile glazed ball from his mouth to that of his patient. It was a kind of kiss." And the following scene from "Regina": "But before she'd gotten the words out, he had sucked in his checks; around his lozenge. Then, with that slight popping sound, his mouth opened. His lips formed the elaborate O of a man making smoke rings. An instant later she felt the wash of his breath, and smelled its spiciness. It might as well have been chloroform, or ether . . . She fell down and down. Like Alice, she thought, in the rabbit hole." This is the day her play opens. She comes to just in time to make the opening curtain.
Regina is a sensitive, talented, intelligent woman, and from the multiplicity and portentousness of the subjects covered, it is clear Epstein is trying to make several political and metaphysical statements. But perhaps he makes his most important point with these words spoken by Regina's old working-class father as he finishes telling her two sons the cosmic tale of Stanley the Starfish--"Never mind . . . Nobody knows all the things there are to know. Lots of things, in my opinion, have got to be a secret."