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.

"Howard's thematic and poetic concerns are richer than any American playwright I'm familiar with," Chambers said. "He has an extraordinary combination of theatricality, character and event. Is he underappreciated? I'd have to say yes. What he writes about is difficult. It's not sentimental, patronizing or easy. It's filled with a combination of profound thought and wicked humor. He writes with a scalpel, and that's something easy for people to turn away from."

SCR dramaturge Jerry Patch is equally effusive. "I think Howard is the most demanding playwright for an audience of anyone we've ever produced,"he said. "He challenges you intellectually and shows you things that are not always fun to watch—even though he is also a very funny writer who has a satirist's concern, or ire, at the wrongs of society."

Korder writes plays as often as Bruce Springsteen releases albums. The Hollow Lands marks his fourth full-length play to receive a major production since Boy's Life, which received a Pulitzer Prize nomination in 1988. The SCR-commissioned Search and Destroy earned a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award in 1992 and was turned into a film produced by Martin Scorsese in 1995. SCR also commissioned but passed on producing The Lights, which earned a 1994 Obie in New York.

There is an obvious air of anticipation surrounding the premiere of any new Korder play, especially one that is such a departure from his other work in terms of scope, historical setting and time passage. Think Scorsese doing Kundun after years of gritty, urban films.

And what does the playwright think of his latest work?

"I don't think people are going to be dancing when they walk out of the theater," Korder said. "But I do hope that they think they've experienced something—that they wind up in a different place from where they began."

"The cast has a definite sense of respect for it, even awe at times," said Chambers. "It's not like we think we're working on a national monument, but we all know we're touching something terribly important."

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It wasn't God what traveled acrost the ocean, it was the devil. And everything we brung, that's what the devil give us. We got to leave it behind. All of it.

—Kasthenk, religious acolyte

The Hollow Lands begins in the hold of a ship "rolling out of the darkness." It is 1815. James Newman, a penniless Irish immigrant who is haltingly reading from John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, can barely restrain his exuberance at the thought of fleeing the rain-splattered Emerald Isle and the roving gangs of British soldiers out to "recruit" young Irishmen into the empire's army. Newman is headed to America for a new life in the vast, uncharted lands marked "unknown" on the map he bought with his last tuppence in Belfast. Only problem is that the map is 100 years old. It's this preoccupation with terra incognita, the unknown space both within and without, of identity and names and labels and making a new Eden in the New World, that flows throughout The Hollow Lands like one of the turbulent rivers where so many of the play's scenes take place.

In New York, James meets the people who will shape his life. These include Mercy, his future wife, and Samuel Markham Hayes, a magnificently eloquent, Byronesque character plagued by imperial dreams of setting up his own fiefdom in the wilderness. From there, the play roars through a series of encounters. There's murderous rage in New England. Savage encounters with Native Americans along the banks of the Missouri River. Dreams of fortune in St. Louis. Disastrous expeditions. A frantic search for a religious cult that has fled to the desert to "give new names to things." An Army fort with 12 hanged Indians. A quest for the fabled seven cities of gold.

The play's course follows the volatile path of an unhewn people just beginning to get their arms around America. There are hints and echoes of major signposts in the nation's growth, from the Louisiana Purchase and the Oregon Trail to the Mexican War, John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, Virginia, and Native American genocide. And woven throughout are strands of the national character that remain keenly relevant today: business speculation; the worship of profit; the mantra of hard work, spit and gumption; religious fanaticism; utopianism; endemic rootlessness; racism; and, above all else, the worship of individuality and the search to find, or at least define, oneself in a new world—even if that means razing a continent to sink one's own roots in the smoldering ruins.

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You seek salvation in profit. . . . You call dollars freedom. . . . You enslave the African . . . and call it law. You murder the Indian and call it progress. . . . You do not know where you are. . . . Your words are wrong.

Thomas Lauderbeck, prisoner

Frederick Jackson Turner, an influential 19th-century historian, believed that the frontier was a kind of black box: in one side went rough immigrants; out the other came self-sufficient practitioners of democracy. The environment, more than history or institutions, transformed a nation of immigrants into Americans. The westward pull, the promise of the frontier, is at the root of American character. Turner was idealistic: he saw that pull as a noble struggle, one that imbued Americans with their distinctive gifts of generosity, innovation and self-reliance.

The America in The Hollow Lands is in many respects the flip side of Turner's. The constant movement and struggle against the frontier sparked America's terrible ambition, our preoccupation with conquering and subjugating (seizing territory that wasn't ours; disdain for nature), our collective arrogance (manifest destiny), and our freaky religious fanaticism. All of it inextricably bound up with this sacrosanct notion of human rights and the supremacy of the individual.

"I think every character is a different facet of the search for freedom," said Korder. "They're all looking for this ever-elusive notion of liberty, for a place to call home, while at the same time their actions are all about obliterating place."

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I am no mangy trapper come to barter his pelts for the shiny baubles on your shelves. . . . I am the hand . . . that will redraw the map. I will make the white spaces my own. And call myself free.

—Hayes

Korder says his play is less concerned with history than with the search within. That's why he calls it a "history play without the history. These people aren't directly connected to the great historical movements. They're foot soldiers, unaware of the significance of their time.

"What they're all looking for is to be the freest being imaginable, to reach this image they have in their mind. That's a fantasy we all have, and I wanted it to take place in a purely physical realm. America is in the foreground of the play but not the substance. So, no, I don't view this as a criticism of America."

But it's hard to walk away from a reading of Korder's play with "God Bless America" echoing in one's head. This Korder knows.

"The image of America [in my play] isn't the picture of national progress that every politician by obligation is required to espouse," said Korder, who describes himself politically as your typical Left-leaning New York writer. "This glorious past in which we continually triumphed and the mistakes that were made did not mar our march toward even more glory. On one level, that story is kind of true. Millions have come to America and found their place. But there's a lot of talk about America as this Great Experiment—as if someone sat down and came up with all the moral, economic and social concerns and put it all together. But I just don't think that level of intellectual foresight was there."

Instead, the country's progress, Korder believes, mirrors that of every individual's journey: a chaotic and stumbling, sometimes glorious and sometimes horrifying series of mistakes, victories and constant changes. That personal journey interested Korder more than a play about America's collective heart of darkness: how a pattern to one's life, or personal history, takes shape even though the individual may be the last person to realize what is happening.

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Look upon us, Sir. We are the Penetrators. We shall pierce the membrane. We shall go Beyond. For on this continent—one quarter of the globe—nothing has yet to happen. History itself yearns to feel the stab of our entrance. We shall bring Time . . . where Time is not. Mark me, Sir. Mankind can never have this chance again.

—Hayes

The ideas in The Hollow Lands are absorbing and provocative. But what makes Korder a unique playwright is his use of language. That also makes The Hollow Lands a compelling read. Early in his career, Korder's use of short, staccato bursts of dialogue earned comparisons with David Mamet, while his ability to imbue each moment with tension brought Harold Pinter to mind. With The Hollow Lands, he brings that style to a far broader canvas.

But Korder's intrinsic belief that language, not behavior, is character remains the same, according to Chambers. That might sound like theater-school pedantry, but it's crucial to understanding Korder's brilliance. He writes visually and graphically, and an actor has to live in the words as much as he or she lives in the body of the character.

That confounds the lessons most American actors are taught: that the body comes first (think Marlon Brando and the Method). Not Korder. He believes "language is the first priority. If an actor can't find and feel his rhythm, the sharpness of attacks he uses, the very specificity of a lot of his words, then no amount of talking with the playwright or director will make it easy for you," Chambers said.

To illustrate his point, Chambers opened the script at random and picked a seemingly obvious exchange to illustrate Korder's peculiar talent:

Mercy: There were Pigs. James:Pigs. Mercy:In the front room.

"There's a very sharp rhythm to that and very strong sounds: pigs, room. It's taut and tension-filled, and if there's any sort of behavioral distraction between the characters—instead of a real concentration on those words—you won't get the underlying tension," Chambers said.

Offsetting the short staccato dialogue are the more ornate passages, usually contained within the memorable speeches of Hayes, played by Harelik.

"His passages are like arias: long and sustained, embroidered and filigreed," Chambers said. "Hayes is a magician with language, a legerdemain who defines himself through language. His words are more important than his costume. He uses language to overpower, and Mark has an extraordinary ability to capture that."

"I clamored to get this little three-scene role, to spend 10 weeks of my life playing it when I could make much more money doing TV," said Harelik, who last year played the titular character in SCR's Tartuffe. "Basically this is an actor's dream. The character is just magnificent. He's Orson Welles-like—hubris personified, the embodiment of westward expansion. And I have the opportunity to chew every piece of furniture and scenery to sawdust."

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In the cities, men build traps of stone and think they can lock God inside. What would He be doing there? In those little caves . . . God made the deserts. Dryness is in his heart. He cherishes the empty places.

—Ephryheram

Korder is one of the last playwrights one would tap to write a play with such grand historical scope. He has written screenplays about such historical personalities as Ayn Rand and Fidel Castro for cable, but until now, his plays have all concerned themselves with decidedly contemporary characters, realms and situations.

Patch, who is friends with Korder, believes this change in scope was greatly affected by Korder's move from New York to Santa Fe a few years ago. Patch figures that Korder, an avid hiker, developed a close relationship with the land that generated his interest in writing a play dealing with the American frontier.

Korder says the play springs from another source—a gift he gave his girlfriend, who is English: Frances Milton Trollope's 1832 book, Domestic Manners of the Americans. Trollope was a proto-feminist, a socialist who believed that America would be the place where the revolutionary dreams of the French Revolution would take corporeal form.

"Much to her personal dismay, she wound up despising the people," Korder said.

He was taken by Trollope's unintentionally comic tone and the image of an America that already had its projectors (early capitalists), fervent evangelism, thin-skinned pride and haughty arrogance. "It was a country that is very much stranger than ours but also so familiar in terms of its thoughts and ambition," Korder said.

But what really hooked him was Trollope's painstaking recounting of American speech. There were words and phrases he didn't know. "That really intrigued me," Korder said. "I realized I didn't know this way of speech at all."

Many of those words and phrases are woven into The Hollow Lands in highly ironic fashion. Consider the word "scheme." In the first half of the 1800s, "scheme" was used in America—and still is in England—to denote any plan or project, much different from its negative connotation today. Or the phrase "made him come," a euphemism for killing.

His linguistic curiosity piqued, Korder began researching the era. During the process, he realized that the story of America wasn't the well-planned, executed march across a continent to fulfill a manifest destiny but a chaotic mass struggle to give ourselves an identity and a name.

A play was born.

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You—you—I recognize your kind. Oh, yes. The flotsam of history. Drifting about the blank spaces of the continent, cultivating your tiny resentments. Cursing your betters. Dreaming like an onanist of violence and profit. As if you mattered.

—Hayes

While The Hollow Lands marks a dramatic departure in Korder's tone and scope, his concerns remain the same.

"There is a very strong sense in all of Howard's work of asking what do we lose as we go forward, what do we leave behind that maybe we shouldn't," Chambers said. "There is also a very profound question of how you truly build an identity, a sense of place and home and purpose in a society where rootlessness and mobility are so championed."

Similarly, the characters in The Hollow Lands don't deviate substantially from the rest of the playwright's oeuvre.

"He's always written about essentially similar things in his plays, the promise that's out there in American culture—that you can grab this brass ring, and to what extent he believes the brass ring is a lie," Patch said. "Certainly there are people who get it, but most of us don't, and he's writing about most of us. His characters are not kings. James Newman is an immigrant off the docks, and Martin Markheim [from Search and Destroy] is a schmuck, but he's an innocent schmuck.

"So his characters all have that kind of experiential innocence coupled with an ambition and drive, and each time they fail. They may end up wealthy sometimes, but they've lost themselves and their humanity."

Amid this talk of failure and lost humanity, it must be said there is a chord of redemption in The Hollow Lands not usually sounded in a Korder play.

"With so many of Howard's characters, he comes down like a pile driver and mashes them into the floor, and you walk away in terrified wonder at the spectacle because he's so articulate," Harelik said. "But here I think at least two of the main characters begin to discover what wisdom is. They're battered but unbowed."

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And I have played my life out. In pursuit of dust.

—James Newman

Let us speak in purely capitalist terms for a moment. For several years, Korder has invested much time and energy in The Hollow Lands. And it's doubtful the play will be a Big Hit. In the theater, "big" is relative, but a "Big Hit" is basically a play that gets a lot of productions. The Hollow Lands is just too damn big and too expensive for most theaters.

This is also a play so seemingly at odds with the global trade Zeitgeist—the harried rush to tear down any obstacle to free markets—that it might seem to some a queer piece of 1920s-era nostalgia.

"It is kind of a seppuku on his part," Patch said, "spending so much energy on a play that 95 percent of American theaters won't touch."

And that's the ultimate irony of The Hollow Lands. This is a play driven by ambition and hubris, and only a writer with a degree of both would dare write it. But Korder is, after all, an American who writes great American plays—even if the people he's writing for find them difficult to digest.

"He's definitely a product of the kind of society he's writing about," said Harelik, a playwright himself. "He's a true American writer with a wild American energy. And his school is bite-the-hand-that-feeds-him."

Four centuries into America, Patch speculates, "maybe we've reached a point where playwrights like Korder can now do what Shakespeare and his contemporaries were doing: looking back into history and writing plays that take something on its own historical merits but also see the resonance for contemporary times."

But why now? Why did someone like Korder—without warning—suddenly erupt with The Hollow Lands? Patch has an answer, one that echoes Turner's frontier thesis: the transformation of individuals in the old frontier is evident today in the conquest of a new one. "There's a revolution going on," Patch said, "a complete informational revolution, and the cyber resources out there are as vast and unknowable as the American West used to be. That's where the money is."

The Hollow Lands at South Coast Repertory's Mainstage, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555. Previews Fri.-Thurs., Jan. 13. Opening night Jan. 14. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Through Feb. 13. $18-$37 for previews; $28-$47 regular run. Pay-what-you-will performance ($5 suggested minimum) Sat., Jan. 15, 2:30 p.m.

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