Blues and Bill

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Blues and Bill

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Two major American playwrights, four hours of theater, 3,000 miles apart. Such is the life of an A-list theater director.

Mark Lamos has directed shows for Broadway, off-Broadway, and almost every important regional theater in the nation. Right now, he has two major productions running on opposite sides of the country-both written by distinguished playwrights. In San Diego, Lamos directed the most recent Arthur Miller work, Resurrection Blues; and in New York, he-s presided over the off-Broadway run of A.R. Gurney-s newest play, Big Bill.

This would seem like a director-s dream, two new stagings of plays by America-s finest dramatists-but when looked at closely, Lamos seems to have been given very little to do.

With Resurrection Blues, Lamos has been saddled with an impossible task: how do you stage a play that takes place in a remote South American country, where the actual tropical setting plays no part in the action of the play? Arthur Miller-s alleged -satire- involves a fictional banana republic, whose dictator has sold the television rights to a crucifixion of a political dissident. Amazingly, it-s even less funny than it sounds.

Lamos and his design team came up with a clever solution, though: the set consists of the text of a Spanish-language Constitution printed on large columns, which move around to create the various locales: the dictator-s office, the site of the crucifixion, etc.

But what Lamos can-t solve-and which is unlikely to be solved by anyone-is what to do with Miller-s one-dimensional and uninteresting character. Even the venerable Daniel Davis is given only a brief moment to act. His short monologue that opens act two-that questions whether the Jews were ever really in ancient Egypt-is eloquently delivered and offers a faint glimmer of Miller-s old talent for mixing ideas and drama. The rest of the play is shrill, clich-d and self-important: often sounding like a pastiche of essays that Harper-s magazine didn-t find interesting enough to print.

Most depressing is that Miller doesn-t even allow Lamos and actor John De Lancie to create an amusing character out of General Felix Barriaux, the corrupt and bumbling dictator. De Lancie is well cast and he-s had plenty of practice play oily villains on television; but Miller-s text gives him nothing to do, but say a lot of things that intellectual people will shake their head in disgust at. Nowhere is there any glimpse of the fierce power it takes to become a despot, nowhere is any hint of the charm or seduction that leaders (corrupt or otherwise) must have to make people who disagree with them, acquiesce. No, all Resurrection Blues offers is a bunch of portraits of people Arthur Miller doesn-t seem like very much. The result is a play that, not surprisingly, offers very little to like either.

Thankfully, Big Bill, a play about tennis legend William Tatem Tilden, gives Mark Lamos more to work with in terms of stagecraft. Lamos and set designer John Lee Bailey literally turn the entire Mitzi Newhouse Theater into a lush, old-fashioned racquet club, complete with ivy walls and green grass courts.

Also, Lamos has a gifted performer in the title role, John Michael Higgins. Higgins is best known for his work in Christopher Guest-s mockumentaries, but he-s also a fine stage actor as well.

Sadly though, Gurney-s short play feels like an inflated ESPN docudrama-a travelogue of the closeted athlete-s life, cluttered with lots of overt double entendres (i.e. lots of winking lines about ball boys and the best way to hold a racquet). As with Resurrection Blues, the characters are flimsy and forgettable-and so is the experience.

This must be frustrating for a director, for even with first-rate productions and first-rate casts; Mark Lamos can-t produce a full evening-s entertainment when the playwrights provide such second-rate scripts.

Big Bill runs through May 16 at Lincoln Center in New York City; Resurrection Blues runs through April 25 at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.