There are moments, many of them in fact, when Jane Bowles’ 1953 play “In the Summer House” is as misty and pleasant as a sea breeze in June. And just as ungraspable. Dialogue that could, in one reading, be played entirely for laughs can, with a slight directorial spin, carry the gothic humidity of Tennessee Williams. Embracing this will-o’-the-wisp is no easy feat for an audience, even in a production as visually arresting as the one staged by JoAnne Akalaitis.
Its influences painterly as well as literary, Akalaitis’ “Summer House” opts not to nail Bowles’ impressionistic meanderings to the stage, but rather to attempt to suggest, in light, whispery strokes, the loneliness and despair that is this play’s heart. Not for nothing does this overly delicate production have more scrims than Salome had veils.
And with Philip Glass’ discordant, cello-heavy music, the elements of this production should form a perfect union. Akalaitis’ surrealist vision –the set is dominated by a twisted, gnarled tree-size vine that looks melted over the stage by Dali — would seem to be what Bowles’ problematic play has been waiting for all these years. The wait, unfortunately, isn’t over. If the production does well by the play’s few strengths, it also conspires to exaggerate the work’s weaknesses: Both production and play are diffuse, muddy-minded and neither as profound or poignant as their creators would seem to believe.
In a milieu that Bowles’ compadre Tennessee Williams would later crib for “The Night of the Iguana,””Summer House” unfolds along the coast of California’s deep south. Gertrude Eastman Cuevas (Dianne Wiest) is the selfish, unloving mother who lives in a shabby-chic beach house with troubled daughter Molly (Alina Arenal). While mother dreams of escaping the stagnancy of her life via marriage to a businessman, daughter craves the maternal love she has never had. Molly spends much of her time in the small summer house that serves as the play’s central metaphor for human isolation.
This tragic mother-daughter relationship is reflected, in converse, in the form of Vivian Constable (Kali Rocha), a boarder of the financially strapped Cuevas, and her mother (Frances Conroy). Mrs. Constable is forever begging for the elusive love of her selfish, unstable daughter. The pathetic, and by play’s end entirely defeated, Mrs. Constable is, Bowles seems to be saying, the almost certain fate of Molly.
But it’s Mrs. Constable and Gertrude who sit slumped and broken at play’s end. Has Molly, in running off with husband Lionel (Liev Schreiber), escaped this lonely destiny?
Nothing in the depiction of her marriage, presented here as marked with the same lack of love and connection as every other relationship in the play, would offer much hope. And here lies the major flaw of both Bowles and Akalaitis: Lacking the genius of Beckett or Chekhov (two obvious influences that Akalaitis superfluously mentions in her production notes), “Summer House” too often seems little more than an extended and lifeless exercise in the fashionable pessimism of a weekend bohemian.
That said, the exercise has at least been given a careful going-over. If Akalaitis fails to stun her audience with the visual sweep of her “‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore,” she nonetheless offers a work that carries her vision from beginning to end. George Tsypin’s expansive and lovely seaside set, Ann Hould-Ward’s attractive costumes and Jennifer Tipton’s lush lighting are in keeping with the lyrical tone set by the director.
The performances are less steady. Conroy’s boozy Mrs. Constable is the only breakout smash; her energy, both comic and tragic, dwarfs everything else on stage. Wiest’s oddly mannered style is better suited to the second act, when the stoical facade of her Gertrude begins to crumble. Arenal is fine as the troubled Molly, but Rocha seems to have been instructed to play the flighty Vivian as a bratty Valley Girl, and the result is gratingly ill-fitting. Likewise, Schreiber , a promising young actor, has been directed to underplay his already sketchy role.
Akalaitis tosses in broad comic flourishes, which seem like odd-shaped pieces of driftwood dotting an interminably long, scorched stretch of beach.