by Margaret Croyden


Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.

by David Rabe
Presented by The New Group
Directed by Scott Elliott
Acorn Theatre 410 West 42nd Street or 212-244-3380
Reviewed By Margaret Croyden March 23, 20005

David Rabe was only twenty-nine when in 1969 he burst onto the Theatre scene down at Joe Papp's Public Theater with a quartet of plays dealing with the VietNam War: "The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel," "Sticks and Bones" "Streamers" and The "Orphan." Acclaimed by critics and the public as a dynamic and powerful voice so badly needed at the time of the War, he won numerous honors, a Tony, an Obie and The New York Critics award. After that he wrote "In the Boom Boom Room" in 1973 and then came his highly successful "Hurlyburly" in 1984 directed by Mike Nicols. In my interview with him at the time, he told me he disliked Mike Nichols for his direction of the play and I found this rather candid and somewhat fearless. No writer or actor ever dares to criticize Nichols. At any rate Nichols did manage to cast a handful of future stars in that production including William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Christopher Walken, Judith Ivey and Harvey Keitel (quite a bunch).

Soon after his success with "Hurlyburly" David Rabe sort of disappeared from the Broadway scene, but did write several screen plays and a novel "Recital of the Dog." Now "Hurleyburly" has been revived and the critics have found it compelling.
And to a certain extend that's true. Rabe can write dialogue; he can write street talk, he can write funny, he can write sad. And he can write about Hollywood. And about men. All of which appeals to New York audiences, and in fact the play has moved to a larger theater. Rabe has written consistently about the male image in our society, the male attitude toward sex, the male attitude toward each other, and his language and images are terrifying and often repulsive. There are no sweet men in his plays not in "Hurlyburly" at any rate, and this may be surprising, because when I interviewed him, he seemed a quiet, soft spoken man, married for many years, a father of three, and a house in the suburbs--a distinct contrast to the characters he writes about. The men in "Hurlyburly" are all vulgar, all mean spirited, all despicable Hollywood small-fry who try to sell their talent as actors, agents, or writers. It is unclear how they make a living and it doesn't matter; they are interchangeable: one thing they have in common: filthy mouths. And they are dope-sniffers, tough talking wise guys, and extreme misogynists. They treat women like whores, sleep with their friends'dates, take turns fornicating with a poor urchin picked up in the street. A sorry bunch to watch for three hours.

What is David Rabe trying to say? O.K., these men ar pigs. They are a slice of ugly life, and we get that point, but what else is the writer telling us? I did not find an underling theme, or a voice contradicting what these men represent; there are no redeeming characters, so that the playwright's independent view is lost. I believe this prompts the audience to find these characters amusing instead of repulsive; there were too many laughs in the wrong places. True the lines are sharp and crackling, and even witty at times, but what these guys do, say, and think is patently unamusing.

Another problem is the length of the play. Three hours is too long to watch these characters. We get the point soon enough, we know what these men are. More is less here. The acting however is first class. Ethan Hawke is particularly excellent in the lead role. And the direction by Scott Elliott is memorable, although if I were he, I would have sliced the play. Nevertheless, the New Group, founded by Artistic Director Elliott is devoted to producing work for the contemporary theater. "Hurlyburly" surely falls into that category. And David Rabe, despite the criticism, is a playwright who can really write. And I would like to see more of him--a new work perhaps? [Croyden]

Margaret Croyden's most recent book is "Conversations With Peter Brook, 1970-2000" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

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