Intiman's new Craig Lucas play: blighted lives and hidden truths

Bart Sher's production of Prayer for My Enemy is smooth, well-plotted, and admirably directed, but the use of heavy asides by the actors doesn't leave enough to the imagination of the audience.
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Daniel Zaitchik, left, plays Billy and James McMenamin is Tad in the Intiman production of Craig Lucas' <I>Prayer for My Enemy</I>

Bart Sher's production of Prayer for My Enemy is smooth, well-plotted, and admirably directed, but the use of heavy asides by the actors doesn't leave enough to the imagination of the audience.

Returning from Light in the Piazza,, his neo-Henry-James Italian escapade, playwright Craig Lucas has now plunged back into domestic affairs with Prayer for My Enemy, which is now running at Intiman (through August 26). In the play, boyhood friends and lovers reunite amidst a tangle of mixed desires and family dysfunction, backlit by military service in Iraq. As in many of Lucas's previous efforts -- Prelude to a Kiss, Blue Widow, The Dying Gaul -- this play neatly interlaces gay and straight urges in a conventional contemporary context. Intiman offers a solid production directed by its artistic leader and Lucas' regular collaborator, Bartlett Sher. Prayer autopsies the corpse of acid-washed middle America, where war and drink and homophobia fuel the characters' abrasive co-existence. Parents and children, friends and lovers jab at one another, blighting their own lives with fear and failures to communicate. When they do speak to one another, their stunted and acerbic conversations aspire to the misanthropic bite and accumulated ire that appalls us in Edward Albee's characters. Harsh speech masks hidden truths, which are revealed to the audience -- but not to the other characters -- through potty-mouthed, free-associating bitter rhapsodies, delivered as asides to the wings or to the audience. This is a play about communication. Theater itself is a complicated, untidy muddle of efforts to communicate: writer to director through the stage directions, writer to audiences through the script; director to actors in rehearsal, director to spectators through blocking, pacing, and all of stagecraft's many tools; actors to actors through the script and its interstices; actors to the audience; audience back to actors with applause, laughter, restless shifting. Much of this communication is accidental, changeable, and central to the thrill of live performance. A rarer and trickier form of communication is when actors speak indirectly with projected voices and downstage "cheating." That happens a lot in this play, as Lucas makes use of asides, a heavy-handed device that dominates the play's revelations of meaning and emotion. It's as if Lucas is unwilling to trust to the fortuitous or unspoken in his quest to communicate his characters' fundamental feelings. Instead, we have many asides, of this sort: "I didn't know you were alive," "Take him away somewhere and hide him," "You were my first love," "I could fuckin' fry you on the grill." All are proclaimed to the house, to the air, anywhere but to each other. At times one fears the playwright has missed - and denied the director - the benefits of subtlety through this gambit of revealing hidden emotional lives. Lucas' characters speak frankly, we are to believe, with themselves and their audience, if not with one another. But tragedy stems from a fatal absence of self-realization. David Mamet's anti-heroics, for example, are more powerful because his characters are shut off from their own inner lives. Another problem with tell-all asides is that they negate an essential aspect of theater, which is forcing an audience to piece together meaning from limited information. Make an audience omniscient and it will get restless. Otherwise, the script contains a few false notes. A random Chekhov reference is an odd distraction. The deli and the hospital room could have been evoked in more detail to broaden and strengthen the play's physical context. Billy Noone, played by Daniel Zaitchik, is unconvincing, and his intellectual gifts are more sketched than realized in the script. Some lines are overwritten, some relationships strained. The playbill for Prayer includes an actor and character who never appears onstage; presumably he was written out of the script in rehearsal? Yet this is also a smooth, well-plotted piece. The best plays leave us with burning questions that we discuss anxiously amongst ourselves, and this play gives us several which, at least, smolder: What would Austin have done to Dolores? Will Iraq claim yet another soldier's life? Who is the enemy? Sher's production admirably steers clear of sentimentality. A clumsier director would have turned the final scene maudlin; by putting an edge on Karen's eulogy, Sher deepens the character of the long-suffering wife. He has elicited performances which are strong, if not quite even. Both the lads push it a bit and haven't settled into their roles: James. McMenamin would blow a more dangerous eddy into the family if he played Tad Voelkl as a wilder character, less a slacker. And Zaitchik must work harder to realize the Billy character, whom the script expects to struggle -- like Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting -- between brilliance and the posturing insensitivity of the lower-middle-class male. Dolores Endler's solo scenes are strongly played by Kimberly King. In all, this is an essentially solid and interesting show. It continues Intiman's tradition of nurturing new plays and doing valuable work.


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