Memory Lane

Two contrasting plays offer theatrical mind games

The Drawer Boy, The House of Blue Leaves

The Drawer Boy - By Michael Healey. Performed by the Studio Theatre of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis through February 9 at the Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road. Call 314-968-4925.

The House of Blue Leaves - By John Guare. Performed by the Curtain Call Repertory Theatre through February 2 in the Faust Park Carousel House, 15185 Olive Boulevard. Call 636-346-7707.

"The play is memory," Tom states in the opening line of Tennessee Williams' haunting The Glass Menagerie. From Edward Albee and Herb Gardner to Neil Simon and Lanford Wilson, a host of playwrights have elevated the memory play -- sojourns into the echoing past -- into an elegiac genre. But in the ever-engaging and ultimately engrossing The Drawer Boy, a young Canadian dramatist named Michael Healey goes a step further. Here, memory is not a given; it is a gift. The Drawer Boy is a memory play about a man with no memory at all.

Set in 1972 -- though, really, the date has little relevance -- the story concerns a young Toronto actor who intrudes on a modest farm in an attempt to gather material for a play he's helping to write. The farm is inhabited by Angus and Morgan, two old bachelors. Angus is the play's title character, for once upon a time, long ago, he was a draftsman. But as a result of a wound suffered during World War II, Angus has lost his memory. Now he putters about the farm, baking bread and counting night stars, activities he can pursue in the present. "He only knows right now," his caregiver, Morgan, explains. Morgan is made of sterner stuff. He possesses the gentle, unswerving dedication of a seeing-eye dog.

In another writer's hands, this same premise might be the jumping-off point for a dense, plot-twisting, thematic briar patch of a mystery. What really happened to Angus? Why? What is true here, and what is not? When fact intersects with truth, which will out? The Drawer Boy addresses these questions. But the play's charm and intrigue lie in its effortlessness and seeming ease. There is no audience manipulation here; instead, the story's surprises unfold organically.

The current telling at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Studio Theatre is lovingly rendered. Michael Philippi has designed and softly illuminated a spare set reminiscent of Grant Wood by way of Thomas Hart Benton. All three actors deliver impeccable performances.

As the young city boy who stumbles into a situation beyond his understanding, Matthew Cody has the sketchiest role. The viewer learns next-to-nothing about his background; one senses that he's only there to make things happen. Yet Cody manages to instill the role with variety. He's impetuous, gullible, intuitive -- and always utterly believable. As the ever-protective (and perhaps overprotective) Morgan, Walter Charles has a quite different challenge. Morgan is the only one of the three characters who knows Angus' backstory, and it's not a story he willingly chooses to share.

Charles' often restrained performance is a study in controlled precision. But the plum role belongs to the dysfunctional Angus. Charles H. Hyman finds an understated eloquence in, and between, the lines. In one scene, Angus is benignly humorous; in another, he's sweetly touching. His bursts of unleashed power rivet the audience.

Not only has director Susan Gregg shepherded a production that is remarkably cohesive, she has written director's notes that are informative and entertaining. She may, however, have done The Drawer Boy a disservice by describing it as a "feel-good play." The phrase denotes simplicity and sentimentality, both of which are frowned upon by so-called serious theatergoers, and neither of which applies here. The Drawer Boy is a simple play, but it is not simplistic. As the ever-perceptive theater critic Harold Clurman once observed, "The commonplace is not always the obvious."

In her program notes, Gregg also offers some thoughtful comparisons between The Drawer Boy and Michael Frayn's Copenhagen, which is continuing its run on the Rep's Mainstage. Both plays have three characters, both are set against the backdrop of World War II and both rely on the recounting of memory. Most important, neither play attempts to answer the questions it poses. (Some viewers tend to think that if a play doesn't answer questions, it hasn't asked them. Big mistake.)

But Gregg omits one glaring contrast between the two shows. The Drawer Boy is as viewer-friendly as Copenhagen is viewer-bewildering. In a gesture that seems emblematic of the play itself, throughout The Drawer Boy one of the old farmers feeds a spoonful of medicine to the other, and it always goes down nice and easy. Although The Drawer Boy makes carefully reasoned observations about the divine charity of the human soul, they too are easy to take.

If this amiable play has any flaw -- and surely it's the flaw of a novice writer -- by evening's end there's been a little too much dot-connecting. Certain key plot points are telescoped. (Those repeated references to the cemetery need to be thinned out.) Nevertheless, for this outing viewers can leave their hairshirts at home; no one will feel a need to punish himself for not understanding The Drawer Boy. To the contrary: When theater is this involving -- and when a production is this realized -- it creates memories all its own.

And now for something drastically different. If The Drawer Boy is an uplifting testament to the resilience of the spirit, John Guare's dazzling The House of Blue Leaves, presented this week by the Curtain Call Repertory Theatre, takes the viewer on a spiraling descent into humiliation.

What a schizophrenic play this is -- half Strindberg, half Feydeau. Act 1 is a cruelly comic dance of death among three pathetic misfits. Artie Shaughnessy (Tom Bell) is a New York City zookeeper desperate to succeed in show business. "I'm too old to be a young talent" he cries, until it becomes litany. Artie is married to the pitiful and slightly deranged Bananas (Lynda Waters). In her lucid moments, Bananas may well be the play's conscience. But when she's not lucid, she cannot quite determine whether she's a spouse or a pet.

Then there is Bunny (Rebecca Schene), Artie's manic mistress. Bunny is so supercharged, she can turn a vial of pills into a maraca. Apart from an inflated imagination -- but then, everything about Bunny is inflated -- her primary problem would seem to be that she can't hold a job.

Although Artie's nightmarish world comes tumbling down on a specific date -- October 4, 1965, the day the pope visits the United Nations to protest the Vietnam War -- the play actually exists in a time warp. Artie's tomblike apartment might as well be his own wretched mind; that's how removed from reality these happenings are. But when, in Act 2, Artie's world is invaded by a cadre of zealous nuns, an endearingly deaf movie starlet and a would-be assassin determined to blow up the pope, these added oddballs transform mayhem into lunacy. Nothing else the prolific Guare has written even approaches the wild originality of The House of Blue Leaves.

The initial Off-Broadway production in 1971 took off like a house on fire -- then had to close down nine months into its sellout run when the theater burned down. Fifteen years later, an acclaimed off-Broadway revival once again focused attention on the play. Now another seventeen years have elapsed. Today The House of Blue Leaves doesn't get seen all that often, which is why the current Curtain Call Repertory Theatre production is so welcome. Director Dennis Shelton would be the first to acknowledge that his House has been mounted on a shoestring, yet this community-theater production delivers at least one surprise.

As the aptly named Bunny, Schene might well be the Energizer bunny come to life -- with a little Road Runner thrown in for good measure. Her torso seems to be attached to toothpicks rather than legs. Yet when she puts her tiny feet into motion, they whirl with the ferocity of a buzz saw. This Bunny is a force to be reckoned with. In making the most of a flamboyant role, Schene becomes the generator that charges the entire evening. Thanks to a powerhouse performance, The House of Blue Leaves still dishes out huge portions of audacious tragicomedy.

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