Attention Must Be Paid

Muddy Waters mounts a classic on a shoestring. The Rep...doesn't.

When the singing stops and the talking begins, Wasserstein repeats the same error. The mere mention of Eugene McCarthy's name does not tell us squat about the American condition in 1968. A wan joke about Bert Lance does not inform, much less define, the Carter 1970s.

But at least the older viewers will have heard of McCarthy and Lance. Wasserstein is obsessed with references to fictional offstage characters that we never meet and about whom we could care less. There's no subtext in her writing; anything she has to say is spelled out on the line. Since most of the lines seem to be more concerned with garnering a laugh than conveying an emotion, what begins pleasantly enough eventually grows tiresome.

There comes a point where it's hard to know whether to be more irritated by the script or the production. In this Rep staging, which was directed by Michael Evan Haney, nearly every female character (apart from Heidi herself) is portrayed as a doofus. Little surprise, then, that when surrounded by an array of goofballs, we embrace Heidi as an oasis of reality. Effie Johnson is instantly likable in the title role. She delivers a warm, persuasive and even endearing portrayal. But the production is so overloaded in Heidi's favor, it's easy to grow impatient with her constant moping. By the time she complains (in one of those incredibly long monologues that are the bane of contemporary theater), "I'm envying women I don't know," you want to rap her in the mouth and force her to listen to an endless loop of Steve Lawrence singing "I've Gotta Be Me."

Maggie Hart, Annie Fitzpatrick, Effie Johnson and Celeste Ciulla help in Heidi.
Jerry Naunheim Jr
Maggie Hart, Annie Fitzpatrick, Effie Johnson and Celeste Ciulla help in Heidi.

Details

Death of a Salesman
Through February 18 at Theatre at St. John's, St. John's United Methodist Church, 5000 Washington Place (at Kingshighway). Tickets are $16 ($13 for students and seniors). Call 314-540-7831 or visit www.muddywa terstheatre.com.

The Heidi Chronicles
Through March 4 at the Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves. Tickets are $14 to $63 (rush seats available for students and seniors, $8 and $10, respectively, 30 minutes before showtime). Call 314-968-4925 or visit www.repstl.org.

Heidi travels from Chicago to New Hampshire to Michigan to New York. But it really doesn't matter where she is, because her universe is always the same: She's merely a character on a stage, waiting to make another costume change or sing another song. Director Haney keeps that stage as bare as possible, which seems to be an apt metaphor for his production.

It's perhaps unfair to compare this glib survey of 24 years of American life to a masterwork like Death of a Salesman, whose story plays out in 24 hours. Nor would it be fair to compare the shows in terms of production values. The budget for Heidi's costumes alone was probably greater than the entire cost of Salesman. But when it comes to seizing the belly or probing the heart, when it comes to eliciting compassion or shattering a viewer's complacency — well, there's no comparison there either.

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