Howard Korders Truly Terrifying Tales of America

Photo by Jack GouldWhen he wasn't being an anti-semitic ass, H.L. Mencken—noted journalist, linguist and curmudgeon —usually got it right, or at least made what was wrong seem interesting. Take this observation from his 1922 essay "On Being an American": "[T]he United States is essentially a commonwealth of third-rate men. . . . The land was peopled, not by the hardy adventurers of legend, but simply by incompetents who could not get on at home. . . . The truth is that the majority of immigrants . . . have been not the superior men of their native lands, but the botched and the unfit: Irishmen starving to death in Ireland, Italians weed-grown on exhausted soil, Scandinavians run to all bone and no brain, Jews too incompetent to swindle even the barbarous peasants of Russia, Poland and Rumania. Here and there among the immigrants, of course, there may be a bravo, or even a superman . . . but the average newcomer is, and always has been, simply a poor fish."

With liberty and justice for all.

This country is killing me.

—Samuel Hayes, American

Playwright Howard Korder may not find much to agree with in Mencken's severe indictment of the American character. His grandparents, like millions of other immigrants, found a new life and identity in America. But Korder's big, bold epic of a play, The Hollow Lands, which opens for previews Friday at South Coast Repertory, is not the America of fifth-grade civics classes and amber waves of grain. Set over a 42-year period in the first half of the 19th century, the Promised Land of American myth is turned into a nightmare of unlimited opportunity and unchecked ambition.

The story follows the tribulations of an Irish immigrant named James Newman as he is repeatedly seduced and continually crushed by the phantom promise of the American frontier. In a series of brutal adventures and fruitless wanderings, Newman confronts this untamed wilderness (and the urban places that are only slightly more civilized) and the people who seek to conquer it: the schemers and would-be emperors, the naive innocents and dreamers who hunger for freedom. All are captivated by the allure of this vast open space, where one can carve out a kingdom or claim a new identity; all are consumed by their own fevered ambition and obsessions.

And to think: this will probably be considered Korder's most redemptive, optimistic play.

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Shall we speak of profit? You will see it fiftyfold, I guarantee it. Shall we tell of kings? Look in the glass, you will find the measure of one. Shall we dream of empires? We need not dream. Only reach out, sir. Reach out and close . . . your . . . fingers.

—Hayes

Call The Hollow Lands what you will: a universal journey of self-discovery that uses manifest destiny as its grand metaphor; a searing indictment of American expansion; a look at the poison at the core of the American Dream; a story about a guy who could have lived a nice life but who, blinded by a promise of something better, loses nearly everything.

It's all those things and perhaps more, depending on what the viewer takes away from this first production. One thing no one can disagree with is that it is a very big play.

It's big because it runs about three hours, has 10 locales, and features 16 actors playing approximately 50 characters.

It's big because it will cost a minimum of $750,000—a virtually unheard-of sum these days for a new play that isn't a musical. It's the "most expensive show I can remember us doing in a while," according to SCR co-founder David Emmes—which means it's probably the most expensive in the theater's history.

It's big because of the people spending that money. These include director David Chambers, whose blend of classical expertise and dark humor has graced some of SCR's most memorable shows over the past decade, including Hedda Gabler, Old Times, Private Lives and Tartuffe. Chambers also directed Korder's 1990 masterwork, Search and Destroy, starring Mark Harelik, who is back for The Hollow Lands in the relatively small but critically important role of Hayes. Also onboard for this production is Ming Cho Lee, an East Coast-based designer who is the guru of contemporary American-theater design, a "living treasure," according to Emmes.

It's also big because it's the first new American play of the 21st century (although, in reality, that's completely accidental; January 2000 was the only time Chambers could fit the play into his tight schedule).

But what makes The Hollow Lands a truly important play, as opposed to merely a big one, is that it's a serious play produced by a serious theater and written by a very serious playwright. And it's a very, very good play.

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God speaks through me. When he does, I want to tear my tongue out.

—Ephryheram, religious leader

Barring a disaster on the scale of 1996's musical fiasco Big, The Hollow Lands is likely to be the real deal: a monumental work of art. It reads too well on the page, and its two staged readings at SCR have been too absorbing to think otherwise. It's a brilliant piece of work by perhaps the most challenging, talented and strangely underappreciated major playwright in the theater today.

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