Sybille Pearson’s writing typically displays a journalist’s eye and ear for detail and a novelist’s empathy for characters whose foibles and obsessions would test the patience of less sympathetic observers. But after more than a decade in the theater — her first produced play was “Sally and Marsha” in 1981, and she’s best known as the book writer of the 1983 Broadway musical “Baby”– Pearson still hasn’t developed a consistent voice or an urgent, dramatic vision. These shortcomings plague “Unfinished Stories” despite the intelligence that always seems in play.
Before anything else should be said about this New York Theater Workshop production, however, it must be acknowledged that Joseph Wiseman is giving the most stirring, resonant performance seen on any New York stage in a long time. Whatever the shortcomings of “Unfinished Stories,” and they are considerable, none obscures the pleasure in seeing this grand actor grab a part and spin a golden experience out of it.
Wiseman plays Walter, the dying patriarch of an Upper West Side family, a doctor who quit Berlin in 1933 and has lived with survivor’s guilt ever since. Along with the guilt, survival has bred in him the overwhelming disappointment that has proven an even graver malaise, for he’s conferred it on both his Paris-born son Yves (Laurence Luckinbill), a successful character actor smart enough to know his gifts are modest, and his grandson Daniel (Christopher Collet), a cab driver whose current goal is to farm Christmas trees. Disappointment has imprisoned all three men in a state of incompleteness alluded to in the title.
Walter is first seen sleeping in a living room armchair, in the apartment where he is cared for by his daughter-in-law Gaby (E. Katherine Kerr), despite her recent divorce from Yves. Composing leaflets on her computer and listening to ’60s rock on the low-tech stereo, Gaby is a familiar type, an Upper West Side social activist who refuses to be infected by the cynicism of the times.
Most of what transpires in “Unfinished Stories” is pat and predictable: Yves returns from a Paris honeymoon with his young, now pregnant bride, planning to move his father to the East Side. All kinds of confrontations ensue, while in the center of it all Walter begins writing his memoir in German and secretly injecting himself with morphine to ameliorate the pain of his cancer.
Walter demands the right to die without interference, and Wiseman’s unerring, translucent plangency underscores the character’s consuming sense of loss without obscuring his steely nerve. Fluttering his arms like weightless tendrils as his head turns up in regal profile, Wiseman underplays — and you can’t take your eyes off him.
It’s just as well, because the three remaining cast members don’t come close. Under Gordon Davidson’s swervy, surprisingly blunt direction, virtually every emotional high point seems forced and phony, no matter who it’s coming from, and too many confrontations are played at a high pitch. Pearson has saddled Kerr, a marvelous actress, with a litany of futile imprecations, but clumsiest of all is the final rapprochement between Yves and Gaby, perhaps because the writing here is also at its least persuasive.
It’s all sadder still because Davidson staged “Unfinished Stories” previously at the Mark Taper Forum, Wiseman and Collet being holdovers from L.A.
Peter Wexler has designed a handsome prewar apartment, but he’s furnished it in an unlikely hodgepodge, and Ken Billington hasn’t brought his usual specificity to lighting the action. Gabriel Berry’s costumes are fine.
The play’s title is self-descriptive. Despite its conclusion, “Unfinished Stories” never offers any closure beyond death — either for these family members or for those of us watching them.