The strange case of Ezra Pound -- pillar of modernism, rabid anti-Semite, longtime inmate at a famous Washington asylum -- is promising fodder for the stage. Charged with treason for his pro-fascist rants on radio in Italy during World War II, the controversial poet wound up in St. Elizabeths for more than a decade, as medical experts puzzled over his mental state and writer friends lobbied for his release.
Unraveling the psychiatric mystery might have provided a juicy framework for a glimpse at tortured brilliance. But in "Pound," playwright Sean O'Leary manages only a grimly formulaic precis of a doctor's duel with a reluctant patient. The play, in its world premiere, additionally receives a rather charmless treatment at the hands of Washington Stage Guild and director John MacDonald. It accomplishes the unwelcome feat of seeming dated while holding itself out as something novel.
"Pound" is concerned with the volatile poet, played by Conrad Feininger, in the waning weeks of his commitment at St. Elizabeths, where a new psychiatrist, Dr. Mary Polley (Kathleen Coons), has come on board to take a stab at some sort of breakthrough. There's a touch of "The Miracle Worker" about this combustible pairing: the proud, intransigent subject and the indefatigable healer. O'Leary even tosses in a well-meaning enabler, a nurse (Lynn Steinmetz) who is more worried about Pound's mealtimes than his demons.
As eventually becomes apparent, however, "Pound" is really a morality play, turning on the secret agenda of the doctor, whose placid exterior conceals a streak of anguished cruelty as unsettling as Pound's. The unmasking of Dr. Polley's motives is designed to push the play to a shattering dramatic climax. Although the idea is intriguing -- the psychiatrist as prosecutor, using access to a patient's shame and insecurity as a means of avenging his moral crimes -- the language of the play is stiff and unconvincing. It's egregiously self-conscious, as in Pound's ongoing conversation with the painting of an ax murderer, a former resident of the institution.
The play's other major shortcoming is the raggedness of its central fictional conceit. Would a character of such stony defensiveness, after a dozen years of involuntary commitment, be such easy prey for a young shrink's therapeutic spiel? Would not the doctor's shaky demeanor -- at one point she nearly breaks down under extremely mild badgering by Pound -- have instantly marked her as an unworthy adversary?
Just as injuriously, Feininger and Coons fail to establish anything close to a wary war of nerves. Their exchanges evoke arid dialectic. Feininger's Pound, bushy eyebrows and all, is a disappointing cartoon: He hits the same note of bullying gruffness all evening, and though he tries to convey the fragility of Pound's psyche, an audience feels no investment in his fate. In real life the poet did express remorse for his vicious verbal attacks on Jews, but there is little humanizing sense of regret here. He's hateful to the very core. Coons's Dr. Polley, meanwhile, is too dry to make an engaging adversary. When she finally reveals her plot -- an act of professional suicide -- she seems less a fascinating rebel than someone who is absurdly sanctimonious.
Steinmetz's Nurse Priscomb is a more credible creation; the actress makes the nurse's protectiveness toward Pound feel like something close to love. As the poet Archibald MacLeish, a friend and stalwart advocate of Pound's release, Vincent Clark is a suitably cerebral presence, even if the performance is a bit stiff.
Stiffness is an ailment that "Pound" cannot shake off. Slackness is a problem, too. Marianne Meadows's inexact lighting cues and the faint operatic underscoring in the transitions between scenes contribute to the play's wobbly quality. (The stifling airlessness of the Stage Guild space is of no help, either.) For an evening of more certain drama, perhaps a reading of Pound's own work could be arranged.
Pound, by Sean O'Leary. Directed by John MacDonald. Set, Tracie Duncan; costumes, William Pucilowsky; sound, Clay Teunis. Approximately 1 hour 45 minutes. Through Nov. 28 at 1901 14th St. NW. Call 240-582-0050 or visit www.stageguild.org.