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Theatre in Review: The Stone Witch (Westside Theatre)

Dan Lauria. Photo: Russ Rowland.

The age-old challenge of dramatizing the problems of writers and artists is keenly felt at the Westside Theatre, where Shem Bitterman's soapy melodrama is currently playing. The Stone Witch is preoccupied with the interior life of Simon Grindberg, a children's book author whose work has inspired the imaginations of several generations while adding vastly to the profits at HarperCollins. As the play begins, however, it has been twelve years since he delivered his last book, and Clair, his editor, is desperate. She calls in Peter, a would-be Simon Grindberg, who ekes out a living teaching English as a second language, dangling the prospect of publication -- in return for a small favor.

Clair wants Peter to assist Simon, who is profoundly blocked, in finishing his latest project. This is not a ghost-writing assignment, she adds, severely: "Think of it more as being a sounding board for him to bounce ideas off, in an uncredited role, of course." If Peter can get Simon to produce a manuscript in six months, there will $10,000 in it for him, plus consideration for a future list. Peter, who is, by his own admission, desperate, agrees to the plan. In an early sign that Bitterman is more interested in big scenes than the nagging details that lend credibility to a drama, Clair sends Peter on his way without having him sign any of the contacts and non-disclosure agreements that are mentioned only a few minutes earlier.

Simon lives somewhere in a forest -- although the script doesn't specify the location, it feels like Connecticut -- and, on arrival, Peter discovers that his true task involves propping up a basket case. An aging literary lion who roars even when there is no one to hear him, Simon trash-talks about Clair ("a barracuda in Armani"), bullies Peter for his choice of a popular chain's coffee ("pig swill served in recycled trash"), and rails about "a public that keeps me like a caged animal." Even worse, there is no evidence that he is working on anything at all.

Over the course of several visits, Simon's case looks increasingly dire. He is deeply dependent on his "medicine," which comes in a thermos and is roughly eighty proof. He appears disoriented at times. He mentions his daughter, only to disavow her existence. And he talks to an imaginary little girl named Bella, who may represent a shard of memory from his youth, which was scarred by parents so overprotective that their treatment of him bordered on Munchausen syndrome by proxy. (Many of Simon's demons, as well as the details of his career, bear eerie similarities to those of Maurice Sendak; certainly, the large cut-out characters that decorate Simon's work cabin are school-of-Sendak creations. Interestingly, Simon, who goes on about his many wives, doesn't share Sendak's gay identity.)

Simon insists that they take part in free-association exercises, which devolve into rounds of amateur psychoanalysis and yield little more than a couple of intriguing images. He also commandeers the title of Peter's unpublished work -- The Stone Witch -- claiming that it excites his imagination, but, even so, nothing gets done. Instead, Simon becomes increasingly dependent on Peter, especially when he moves in for a week. They play a childish war game invented by Simon, go skinny-dipping, and partake in other recreational activities -- most of which allow Simon to recall his tortured youth or pontificate on the niceties of writing for young people. ("It's the picture-makers who keep the world sane!") All this horsing-around provides surprisingly little insight: We learn next to nothing about Peter -- who appears to have no friends and whose dream of writing children's books remains opaque -- and Simon's life stubbornly refuses to come into focus.

Eventually, a manuscript of dubious provenance is produced, driving the play to its climax. (How it is created when Simon and Peter are indulging in their adult summer-camp activities is never made clear. The fact that Peter gives it -- a full text and drawings, of which there appears to be only one copy -- to Clair without informing Simon doesn't really make sense). In any case, the artistic father must be slain -- metaphorically, if not physically -- for his apostle to find his own creative life. This doesn't stop The Stone Witch from turning surprisingly sentimental in the last ten minutes.

The Stone Witch exists almost entirely as a vehicle for the actor playing Simon, and, under the direction of Steve Zuckerman, Dan Lauria makes him into a kind of Papa Hemingway for the kindergarten set, practically beating his chest as he denounces the money-changers in publishing and the "vampires from Hollywood" who, he fears, will suck him dry. The seventy-year-old actor also bravely appears in nothing more than his undershorts at one point, when Simon threatens to flash the visiting Clair. If his state of mind isn't really believable -- it's never clear if he is suffering from alcoholism, schizophrenia, dementia, or some combination of the three -- you can't say that Lauria doesn't put on a show. Rupak Ginn, from the television series Royal Pains, does as much as anyone could with Peter, one of the most thinly conceived roles I've seen in some time; he manages to stand up to Lauria in even his most flamboyant moments. Carolyn McCormick, a gifted actress who deserves much better roles, brings her signature wit to the role of Clair -- and, surprisingly, finds some humanity in her, too.

The production benefits immensely from Yael Pardess' stunning set, which depicts the interior of Simon's cabin, with its cathedral ceilings, dragons in stained glass, and a view of the forest outside. Brad Peterson's projections layer moving images of animals onto the forest; he also conjures the stone witch from Peter's book, with which Simon becomes obsessed as he disintegrates. (Pardess designed the images, which look like children's book art and are rightly menacing.) Betsy Adams' lighting efficiently creates a series of time-of-day looks; it also zeros in, eliminating the set, for a couple of brief scenes set in Clair's office and a Brooklyn bar. Christopher Cronin's sound design includes solid reinforcement for Roger Bellon's rather saccharine incidental music, along with such effects as thunder, rain, birdsong, and a whistling teakettle.

A lot of The Stone Witch looks like drama, but too much of it boils down to hollow speechmaking, some of which may be impressive to those unfamiliar with the lives of professional writers. As presented here, it is all very theatrical and very false. Real writers don't issue pronouncements on a twenty-four seven basis: They write, or they try to. That is the undramatic truth. -- David Barbour

(26 March 2018)

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