So transported have we been by the recent flush
of clever, campy spoofs that have dominated the market ("The Wrong
Box," "Women Behind Bars," "Forbidden Broadway," "Little Shop of
Horrors") that we had almost forgotten there are still plays written
that penetrate considerably deeper than the epidermis. Take Percy
Granger's "Eminent Domain," which opened Saturday at the Matrix. It
has been a while since Los Angeles theater has offered anything quite
And yet this dramatic expose of character came to
town with what this department considered to be shaky credentials.
Runs at the McCarter Theater and at New York's Circle-in-the-Square
notwithstanding, an early version of this script read by your reviewer
had not impressed. It goes to prove how wrong we all can be.
Either Granger has been diligently upgrading his
writing, or (more likely) this is a play that benefits hugely from
being confronted on its feet.
Certainly this Actors for Themselves production,
under the unobtrusive but dead-on direction of James Ray, serves
Granger's drama well. What it lacks in a couple of peripheral areas,
it makes up for in the firm calibration of its central performances.
And, if plays are only as good as the quality of the experience they
provide, "Eminent Domain" ranks high in the subtlety of its
On the face of it, it is nothing more than a
carefully developed character study. Yet it sneaks up on us, fills us
with gathering emotional suspense and unexpected affection for
complicated and unpromising people we're allowed to discover slowly.
It's this journey that's the fulcrum of the play.
Katie and Holmes Bradford live in a university town
in the southern Midwest. He's a worn-down professor of English poetry
who's fallen into habitual cynicism and rusting routine. She's a
former artist of promise turned reclusive wife and fast disappearing
into silent impassivity. Their lives are joyless, separate, detached
from any but the most fundamental realities of diurnal existence.
Into this strained and leaden household bursts
Victor Salt, a brash young Harvard scholar who's written a
dissertation on the couple's estranged son, Wendell. Wendell walked
away from home at 16, never to be heard from again. At least not by
his parents. Eight years later, still in hiding, he has become one of
the nation's leading poets—a candidate, Salt claims, for the Pulitzer.
Salt's preoccupation with Wendell doesn't keep a
scholarly distance. He wants to write a book about him whose
publication will be timed to coincide with that possible Pulitzer.
Since Salt, like most of the rest of the world, has never met the
mystery poet, this visit with Wendell's parents is a quest for
He gets them, of course, and so do we—more of them
than he'd bargained for and hardly the ones he'd expected. Salt's a
time bomb in dry brush. His arrival has the effect of disrupting years
of quiescence and calculated avoidance. He inadvertently gouges
well-concealed, festering wounds that explode. What runs from the
sores isn't pretty, but there's a cleansing. Before he's done, Salt's
rattled every skeleton in the family closet, and there's a certain
liberation in the noise.
Yet "Eminent Domain" is not just the bringing of
dirty secrets into the open. Granger settles for nothing so simple.
Secrets are his play's currency. It's the trading, the mysterious
interaction of the truth and the lies that becomes
compelling—especially those dedicated lies we tell ourselves. He makes
it work with the adroitness of a mystery-thriller and the emotional
depth of "Hamlet."
Holmes, played with a gruff mixture of pathos,
vanity and cynicism by Stephen Elliott, has anesthetized the pain of
existence with rigid patterns and frequent nips of whiskey from
bottles hidden behind the volumes in his untidy study. He's mad at
Wendell for more reasons than we'll reveal here and has settled for
the exile of this two-bit college town out of deference to his wife's
physical and psychological problems.
These seem to be numerous. In the main, Katie's a
recovered alcoholic who, since her son's vanishing act, has withdrawn
from life as well as art into an almost invisible existence. Whereas
Holmes reacts to Salt's arrival by saying too much, Katie responds by
saying as little as she possibly can. Salt, who is nothing if not
shrewd, must learn to balance what he knows from Holmes against the
penury of Katie's words.
The exquisite grace and simplicity of Alice
Hirson's Katie provide the evening's most intense and incandescent
moments. The performance is a disturbing, unsentimental, almost
transcendental piece of work, whose paradoxical coupling of inner
fragility and outer detachment becomes irresistible. One can hardly
take one's eyes off her.
In the end, a memorable portrait of one family's
unholy trinity emerges. Each character is revealed and amplified by
the action of another. Except for the lingering German accent in his
presumably New England mouth, Norbert Weisser gives a believable and
slightly caddish portrait of the ambitious young Salt.
John Walcutt is fine as a doltish freshman student
who unwittingly makes a fool of Holmes. Only Philip English, as a
hostile British professor who is being fired, seems ill at ease and,
in spite of his surname, has a good deal of trouble mastering the
Marianna Elliot's costumes are on the mark, and
Gerry Hariton and Vicki Baral have provided a depressing interior
setting that reeks of neglect. Their lighting, on the other hand, is
disappointing, suggesting perpetual night when, in fact, the script
clearly tells us otherwise. True, the psychological climate of this
play (and house) is cloudy, but we should at least be able to see
sunshine outside the front door.
The real praise, we joyfully concede, goes to the
author who knows how to write compelling, moving, unhurried and witty
scenes that never shine at the expense of the play. His lines know how
to be clever and entertaining while remaining true. And they also know
when to lunge for the kill and get off stage, which is rarer than you
B'NAI BRITH MESSENGER - Stage Kaleidoscope
by Herbert G. Luft
"Eminent Domain," now at the Matrix Theatre under
the auspices of Joseph Stern, comes to us from New York's
As written by Percy Granger, it resembles in format
a drama by Strindberg with much of the involvement of the characters
dormant in the past and brought to the surface only by an intruder
trying to find skeletons in the closet.
Stephen Elliott essays the role of the college
professor worn by times and the attitude of his impassive wife,
depicted with sensitivity by Alice Hirson. Norbert Weisser is the
overly ambitious Harvard graduate who, seeking truth, brings the old
couple to the brink of disaster. It is Elliott's in-depth performance
as the grouchy old man, who at last rises to the occasion, that will
James Ray directed the finely-tuned ensemble.