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Putting on Airs 

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Lookingglass Theatre Company

By Adam Langer

But I'm not the songs. It's like somebody expecting Shakespeare to be Hamlet or Goethe to be Faust. If you're not prepared for fame, there's really no way you can imagine what a crippling thing it can be. --Bob Dylan

"My Indian name is He Who Has No Ambition!" --remark overheard on a tour boat in Germany

For Jacques, an unambitious grunt without any noticeable gifts, the temptation is impossible to resist. At 32, he considers himself past his prime and has grudgingly settled into a life of mediocrity. He sits day after day in the grim editorial offices of a children's magazine trying to fashion hackneyed stories about cowboys and Indians into readable prose and trying to inspire a dotty old art director to come up with acceptable color illustrations. He sits night after night at the dinner table with his father, gulping down soup and making lame attempts at small talk. "I'm 32," Jacques remarks on the subject of his dull lifestyle. "I don't need to get out anymore."

Friendless, hopelessly bored, unable or unmotivated to find any sort of romantic attachment, he remains in a monotonous purgatory--the perfect idle soul to climb upon a teeter-totter in the devil's playground. If this were film noir, Jacques would be the sort of dim-witted schlepp who'd be enticed by the femme fatale into bumping off her husband for the insurance money. If this were a western, he'd be coaxed into the role of lookout man for the heist of horses or a bag of gold. But since this is an adaptation of a French satire about the price of fame in bourgeois society, Jacques is tempted by the ultimate intellectual crime: he plagiarizes, selling his soul for fame and fortune.

Jacques falls in love with Suzanne, the widow of a recently deceased school chum--the brilliant, cynical intellectual George Galard--and after they're married she presents him with a copy of George's one and only novel, Hatred, an outspoken masterwork that just before his death he'd asked her to burn, Kafka-style. Strapped for cash and hungry for some sort of place in society, Suzanne encourages Jacques to pass the work off as his own. Jacques acquiesces, with results that are as tragic as they are predictable.

Jacques suddenly achieves fame, wealth, and intellectual recognition. He's hailed as the new spokesman for a generation, granted the exclusive Maupassant prize, feted in artists' salons, asked to speak at graduations. The question is, What does a plagiarist do for an encore? Especially when there's nothing left for him to plagiarize. Like Superman wearing a necklace of kryptonite, Jacques is weighed down by the burden of his unmerited success. Incapable of writing anything but a trite, incompetent follow-up to his "first novel," he becomes paralyzed creatively, a mess of a human being far worse off than he was. Though before the publication of Hatred he'd entertained small dreams of succeeding as a prose stylist, now he must either admit his crime and come to terms with his utter lack of talent or spend his life trying to become someone he can never be.

Though George--based on the novel Le mort saisit le vif, by the prolific French writer Henri Troyat, who's perhaps best known for his nonfiction--is an effective cautionary tale about achieving fame by illicit means, it also functions more universally as a parable about the perils and traps inherent in fame however it's achieved. For Jacques, attaining success doesn't entail developing further as a writer but repeating his earlier success. Anything that isn't written in "his own" authorial voice is summarily dismissed. The accolades he receives become a sort of prison: he's only allowed to be the person he's perceived to be--and in his sad case, that person was never him to begin with. At the beginning and end of the play Jacques says, "I fear my name." The first time he says it, we don't know why. The second time, the reasons are all too clear.

As translated and adapted for Lookingglass by John McCray (who's identified in his bio as a writer for greeting cards and VH-1, which might explain his identification with the work), George is a cunning, thought-provoking play. And in some scenes--such as when Jacques begins to devolve into madness or when he encounters the pathetic figure who inspired Galard's novel--it's genuinely moving. The trouble with McCray's adaptation and Shirley Anderson's atmospheric, stylized staging is that they equate the untalented with the uninteresting. True, Jacques is the editorial equivalent of a bureaucratic functionary straight out of Kafka, but far too much time and attention are given to the frustrating drudgery of his work and life. With a devotion to detail perhaps equaled only by Chantal Akerman's film Jeanne Dielman, which unblinkingly reveals the quotidian activities of a prostitute over four hours, McCray and Anderson show at great length, to the sound of a ticking clock, Jacques' fruitless editorial meetings and his dull dinners with his father. Though in this case the theatrical equivalent of watching paint dry does have a thematic purpose, these scenes are nevertheless tiresome and alienating.

Anderson's direction, though outstanding visually, is more stylish than substantive. John Musial's set and Christine Solger-Binder's lighting design create the appropriate mood of bleak desperation. And Toni Hill's clever costumes--which run the gamut from overwrought hats adorned with peacock feathers to dresses that wouldn't look out of place on Ming the Merciless or Cruella de Vil--wittily parody haute Parisian fashions of the first half of this century.

The acting, however--usually the strongest point in a Lookingglass show--is disappointing. As Jacques, Troy West gives a very flat, monotonous performance: the protagonist's plight is far less engrossing than it could have been. And though Christine Mary Dunford has some sly fun in the rather stock role of Jacques' scheming social-climbing wife, Gary Wingert fails to distinguish himself in any of his roles: the art director, Jacques' father, a politician. Several other actors seem content to play two-dimensional renditions of Parisian society types. Like Jacques, these characters seem more imitative than genuinely inspired.

George is a slow-paced, mature intellectual entertainment--quite a departure for the folks at Lookingglass. There's little hint of the physicality and youthful spirit that have given them their reputation. They should perhaps have taken their cue from the play's tragic antihero: adopting another's voice and abandoning one's own doesn't yield the best results.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still.


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