Photo by Jack GouldThe promise of America has always been tightly intertwined with the promise of individual freedom and choice—notions as time-honored in American tradition as racism, xenophobia and the insatiable drive to conquer, pillage and possess. The Hollow Lands, Howard Korder's ambitious new play, stretches a broad canvas across the first half of the 19th century in a grand attempt to capture these conflicting forces in a picaresque portrait of a young America just coming to grips with its seemingly infinite potential. And while this is a play of extraordinary scope and intelligence, it ultimately wanders about its own vast landscape much as its doomed Every(white)man, James Newman, wanders the American West.
Korder is a world-class playwright whose supple command of language often resonates with a tart and stinging brilliance. The first third of his play is focused and engaging, fluidly tracing Irish immigrant Newman's arrival in 1815 New York; his Dickensian position in a Lower Manhattan shop; his attraction to the shopkeeper's young wife, Mercy; and their subsequent marriage after the boss gets whacked in an after-hours robbery. Their politely tentative relationship blossoms as the more assimilated Mercy alternately cajoles and badgers James into losing his low-class brogue and gaining some social skills.
It's an appealing nucleus on which to build Newman's pursuit of the freedom "to live as we choose." But Korder's huge canvas—and the increasingly broad strokes he uses to fill it—first obscures and finally all but obliterates these early, finely drawn details.
One of the broadest strokes comes in the form of Samuel Markham Hayes (a deliriously over-the-top Mark Harelik). A guru of greener pastures, Hayes' fevered pep rally of self-realization lures Newman from earnest domesticity into an ill-fated journey that becomes both his and the play's undoing. Wife Mercy, meanwhile, abandoned by husband and playwright, is banished to a pair of brief, awkward cameos—first as a stridently bitter cult member and then a twinkly old schoolmarm—over a period spanning nearly 40 years and more than half the play. Newman spends his time drifting Zelig-like through a series of Big Moment dioramas in American history that both underscore and mock the failure of his once-eager promise and, by proxy, America's.
It's all undeniably spectacular visually, but dazzling set pieces cannot fully compensate for a discarded emotional core. In his long reach to capture a country's soul, Korder loses his grasp on the play's heart.
The Hollow Lands at South Coast Repertory's Mainstage, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m., Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Through Feb. 13. $28-$47.