Stunt Double

Pulitzer Prize winner Paula Vogel's gimmick-laden The Mineola Twins falls short

Aug 7, 2002 at 4:00 am
Paula Vogel must be the luckiest playwright in America. Ever since she won the Pulitzer Prize four years ago for How I Learned to Drive, all her old trunk scripts have been resuscitated -- regardless of quality. That's how The Mineola Twins, which initially debuted in Alaska before the Pulitzer, received a post-Pulitzer production Off Broadway. Although its limited success was mostly the result of a star turn by comedienne Swoosie Kurtz in the title role(s), now The Mineola Twins gets produced on a regular basis, as if it's a play of high merit, which it is not.

The plot is structured around a promising enough premise. We are invited to observe twin sisters Myrna and Myra (no last names, please; that's a clue that we're watching comedy) as their contrasting lives play out across a span of nearly four decades. The twins are not intended to be fleshed-out characters; rather, they personify the far extremes of an ever-polarizing America. The busty Myrna, sexually repressed in the Eisenhower 1950s, is subjected to shock therapy in the Nixon '60s and later becomes the host of a right-wing radio talk show in the George Bush '80s. Her despised twin sister, Myra, who as a teenager is a slut, becomes a 1960s radical and then a lesbian who works for Planned Parenthood.

Not only are both sisters portrayed by the same actress (Mary Schnitzler), all three principal actors play dual roles, sometimes by gender-bending. This is the sort of ploy that Alan Ayckbourn and Michael Frayn can pull off with wit, imagination, even purpose. But with Vogel, the dual casting is a mere gimmick that -- in this production, anyway -- leads to infuriatingly long and sometimes confusing scene changes. The playwright has acknowledged that although she normally allows a script to germinate in her head for years before she begins to write, with The Mineola Twins she had nothing in mind when she started. She simply wanted the challenge of facing "a blank sheet of paper." It shows.

Vogel's observations about an ever more shrill America are shallow and obvious. Littering a scene with topical references (James Dean and Jack Kerouac in the '50s, the Chicago Seven in the '60s, etc.) is not to be mistaken for insight. Even more distressing, the play is fatally overwritten and top-heavy with dense, rambling monologues. Ignore the program note that states that The Mineola Twins lasts for one-and-a-half hours. It actually drags on for somewhere between two hours and forever.

But there's something else distressing about this production -- and that's the production itself. Two months ago the (Mostly) Harmless Theatre staged The Laramie Project, another script of dubious merit, but at least they gave it an astutely directed, beautifully acted mounting. It's downright bewildering to think that The Mineola Twins -- which is lacking in direction, lacking even in a fundamental understanding of the play's ambitions -- is a product of that same sharp company.

On a more hopeful note: I assume that The Mystic, which concludes its four-week premiere engagement this weekend at the ArtLoft Theatre, is being billed as a "rock opera" in an effort to target a young audience. Personally, I'd be more prone to label it a "pop opera." Let's split the difference and simply state that it's 95 percent music -- a lot of it tuneful music that, on repeated listenings, likely would take hold and even begin to resonate.

The show was written by John Cleary and Michael Leight, two St. Louisans who -- if they can avoid the danger of taking themselves too seriously -- are on the verge of delivering an entertaining evening. Cleary has stated that the story came to him one night in a dream. It would be interesting to know whether that dream occurred on the same night he watched The Wizard of Oz, because there are obvious parallels between the two plots. This one concerns a flying schooner that carries its captain and crew beyond the stars to aid a distant people dominated by an evil presence known as the Darkness. (So OK, George Lucas borrowed from The Wizard of Oz, too.)

As staged at the ArtLoft, The Mystic is a raw, rugged, bare-bones production. Some voices are stronger than others; some lyrics are drowned out by the six-piece band. But the show benefits from an innate likability. Leight and Cleary are onto something rambunctious and fun; now they need an audience to help them learn how to progress from here.