"Saturn Returns" by Noah Haidle. Directed by Nicholas Martin
Produced by Lincoln Center Theatre at the Mitzi E. Newhouse,
150 W. 65 St., NYC
Nov 10, 2008 - Jan 4, 2009. Tues. – Sat. 8:00 p.m.
Wed. and Sat. 2 p.m. Sun. 3 p.m.
Tickets: $70 – 75
For Tickets call 212-239-6200 or 800-432-7250 or www.lct.org
by Glenda Frank
There are plays that show so much promise that you exit wishing the playwright had had a good friend to warn him that his script was still a draft. Noah Haidle's play "Saturn Returns" at Lincoln Center is the most recent addition to that list. Haidle, whose credentials include Princeton and Juilliard, may have lacked a good dramaturge but he lucked out with his director, Nicholas Martin. Martin almost saves the play.
Haidle's last high profile venture was the darkly whimsical "Mr. Marmalade," the story of a lonely little girl who is caught up in television fantasies of adult life and is visited by an eponymous violent, cocaine-snorting figure as a father stand-in. It was fresh, bewildering material. For "Saturn Returns," Haidle has veered nostalgic and wintry. Dr. Gustin Novak (John McMartin) of Grand Rapids, Michigan, his protagonist, is at the end of his life. He is lonely, longing for his deceased wife and daughter, and trying with wit and charm to convince the attractive assisted living caretaker to stay, to scramble up some eggs, pour some orange juice and chat.
The astrological reference is to the return of the planet Saturn every 29.5 years, or metaphorically at turning points in a life. We meet him in the present and through his memories at two younger stages as a newly married resident (Robert Eli) torn between his new wife and his studies and as a widow (James Rebhorn), trying to keep his only daughter from leaving home. Gustin's flashbacks become live scenes as these younger incarnations return to the living room of his decaying home and interact with either his wife, who died in childbirth, or his only daughter at 29. The scenes with Gustin at 88 are played with the nurse although at times two of the three actors playing the radiologist are on the stage at once, moving toward and around the beloved woman – wife, daughter or nurse – like moths to a candle.
Haidle gives Gustin just enough pepper and vinegar to keep his comments unexpectedly tart and funny and to cut the saccharine mood. The tone throughout is romantic, and this tone is a strong draw. There is so much tenderness in the doctor's touch, teasing and affection in his voice when he speaks to the women in his life – all played by Rosie Benton – that you feel his desire to return to those moments. It is a painfully real emotion.
But the play is not a one-note tone poem about loss. Haidle is enough of a playwright to add dimension to the women and the physician. There are disconnected, disconcerting clues here and there, but no development of any of the characters, which leaves us unfortunately free to write our own scenario, and it isn't pretty.
Suzanne, the cheerful wife, drops intimations of a chronic depression, which the young doctor, deep in his studies, mostly ignores. Zephyr, the daughter, has her bags packed and is trying desperately to find a new wife for her father through a matchmaking service. He seems obstinately opposed to everyone, but at the last moment dates someone he feels attracted to, yet he still won't let Zephyr leave. In their heated argument before she heads to Mexico, we learn the back story. The caretaker who reared her had fallen in love with the attractive doctor, but when she admitted her feelings, he fired her. How could he reciprocate, he asks his daughter. She was a servant. He refused to hire a replacement. For the next 16 years, Zephyr ran the house, cooked his meals, and made no life for herself.
What are we to think of a man who would do that to his child? To continue to like him and the play that won't let give us more than hints, we have to ignore the facts. John Martin weaves a powerful charm as the self-centered heart-sick man. We see the world only through his eyes.
More unsettling is the caretaker, who is compassionate and professional – we think. Then she returns that evening, having been beaten badly by her boyfriend, and suggests that the physician and she take a long trip together.
Obviously we are to think that a new phase is beginning, but the timing makes it sound like a con game or the plan of an unbalanced woman – and it seems a deus ex machina.
I look forward to Mr. Haidle's next work, to seeing John McMartin and James Rebhorn perform again, and to Mr. Martin's next production. There's a whole lot of talent here and it all deserves a better vehicle.