Homage to Catatonia

Courtesy Newport Theater Arts CenterTheater types who complain of dwindling or stagnant audiences usually bitch about the dumb, clueless and witless masses. “People are just not into theater,” they say. “They don't get it.”

The truth is that many people don't like theater because there's too much of it. Too much talking, too much unnecessary bullshit, and too many directors who are either afraid or incapable of cutting plays to keep them from running longer than an Oliver Stone epic.

Tony Kushner aside, few people care about long-winded writers and long-winded plays. Nor should they. And directors and companies who continue to stage plays that run well past the 120-minute mark are doing a great disservice not only to the people enduring their marathons, but also to theater itself. They're keeping it relevant only to those misguided fools who actually love the medium. That may keep the clubhouse up and running, but it doesn't do squat to attract new people into your seats and can often drive discerning viewers away.

The Newport Theater Arts Center's production of Lanford Wilson's Redwood Curtain is an example of what happens when good plays go long. Sure, it clocks in at less than 90 minutes, but it's staged without an intermission. And it feels twice as long.

Like most of this highly prolific playwright's work, Redwood Curtain is a smartly written, morally searching play that hamstrings itself with too much damn dialogue. Wilson is adept at saying in 100 words what other writers can say in 10. Many of those words may sound nice, but after a while, one tends to focus more on the feedback from neighboring hearing aids than what's happening onstage.

And what's happening is the story of a teenage Vietnamese American adopted by an ultra-rich family who spends two weeks out of the year in Arcata (pass the bong, bro) with a wealthy aunt (Cheryl Pellerin). It's not that Geri (Julia Cho) loves the redwoods or the chronic; she's obsessed with finding her real father: a former American G.I. who knocked up her mother while defending good, moral Christians from the evils of chopstick-wielding communists. The hyperintelligent Geri, who not only is a piano prodigy but also possesses some kind of Vietnamese genie powers over nature (yes, it makes no sense), figures her biological dad is one of the hundreds of Vietnam vets living amid the ferns and fog of northern California's Redwood Empire.

When she stumbles across a somewhat loopy vet, Lyman (Howard Patterson, showing once again why he's one of the county's best character actors), who seems to fit the profile she's pieced together over the years, Geri is determined to, you know, figure her shit out and stuff.

It's all pretty dreary, even though the cast does some fine work. But this script cries out for some judicious cutting from director David Colley. The rambling conversations and constant yakking turn this play of self-discovery into one of self-induced catatonia.


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