Sometimes a premise is so improbable or downright ridiculous that you have problems accepting anything that follows. When an adult woman with Down syndrome becomes depressed after the death of her mother, her slightly younger half-brother accepts the advice of a friend to give her songwriting lessons. So far, so good. Then we meet this teacher, who is really not a teacher but a singer-songwriter-sculptor who just might have Asperger’s syndrome.
Down syndrome is talked about a lot in Will Arbery’s new play, “Corsicana,” which opened Wednesday at Playwrights Horizons. Asperger’s syndrome is never mentioned. But when the character named Lot (Harold Surratt) doesn’t accept something that another character says, he has a tendency to spit on the floor. His sculptures have been the recent subject of a major magazine article, and he hates the publicity. He then refuses to sell his art. And whenever anyone attempts to express an emotion, especially of kindness or love, Lot either freezes or goes into a kind of spasmodic dance.
Lot is an intriguing character, and he dominates much of the play’s first act. Unfortunately, he is not on stage again until the very end of this two-hour-plus drama.
But back to that premise. Why would the half-brother Christopher (Will Dagger) and his friend Justice (Deirdre O’Connell) think to put Lot in the same room with the depressed sister, Ginny (Jamie Brewer, “American Horror Story”)? Frankly, even before this premise is established, there is another problem with “Corsicana,” and it’s right there in the cast credits. Beware of any play that has characters named Lot and Justice.
In his previous play, “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” Arbery gives us Roman Catholic characters who belonged to some weird politically conservative cult. Most critics praised the play. I did not. I found it ludicrous, and had to wonder if the rave reviews didn’t have something to do with liberal critics enjoying the fact that Catholics were being trashed. Catholics are one of the few minority groups that it’s acceptable for the left to trash. The characters in “Corsicana” – it’s the name of a small town in Texas – are Protestant, not Catholic. Regardless, they talk a lot about the devil and angels, as well as how the ghosts of dinosaurs haunt their town, and, once upon a time, these prehistoric phantoms attacked a gathering of the Ku Klux Klan. The characters in “Corsicana” may not be Catholic, but they have real religious challenges.
Lot and Ginny don’t exactly hit it off when they first meet. You will know this tired dramatic device if you’ve seen “Million Dollar Baby,” which features Clint Eastwood rejecting Hillary Swank’s demands to teach her how to box. You want to scream at the screen, “Just get together so the movie can begin!”
The situation in “Corsicana” is a little different in that neither Lot nor Ginny want to engage in the songwriting lessons they have been pressured into by Justice and Christopher. Lot and Ginny are right. Justice and Christopher are nuts. End of play. Maybe Arbery realized he’d entered a dead end, because in their very unlikely follow-up lesson, Lot and Ginny are suddenly great friends, and the problem soon develops that Ginny has fallen in love with Lot.
Sam Gold directs “Corsicana,” and in the first act when Lot dominates, he successfully tells the story through that character. The deceptively simple scenic design by Laura Jellinek and Cate McCrea takes on unexpected dimensions as the act progresses, most of the changes having to do with Lot’s state of mind. Gold often places Surratt in deep shadows at key moments, and the actor emerges as not only a distraught character but an elusive enigma.
Surratt has the advantage of playing a character who has difficulty expressing his emotions. If only Arbery’s other characters suffered such a problem. They yammer on about their dreams and their nightmares, with the latter far outnumbering the former. Arbery ends these shaggy-dog speeches with one of the other characters – usually Lot or Ginny, because they are the play’s BS detectors – making a wisecrack. This way Arbery gets to have it both ways: He tells us about the respective character’s life without having to dramatize that character’s life, and the wisecrack then inoculates him from any charge that what we’ve just heard for the past several minutes is sentimental or emotionally fraudulent. Here’s one such funny put-down delivered by Lot to one of Justice’s longer digressions: “Could be a vitamin deficiency. Maybe you need to eat more fish.”
Dagger and O’Connell give busy, mannered performances. O’Connell, who just won the Tony Award for her lead role in “Dana H.,” appears to be channeling an older Annie Hall. Maybe there’s no other way for actors to deliver this kind of segue-challenged dialogue; all those fractured sentences are in the script.
Christopher is a film teacher who wants to go back to making movies. He doesn’t talk much about those movies. Justice is a writer, and Christopher asks her about the book she is writing. Justice answers at length: “It’s about the evils of centralized power, especially in a country as massive as the USA, let alone a state as big as Texas. It’s about an unforgiving land. It’s about unrealized utopias.”
There are about a dozen more of these “it’s about” in her speech. Because Christopher is a rather amorphous character, his response to this logorrhea isn’t as good as one of Ginny or Lot’s wisecracks. He simply says, “Oh.” At least his response is short.