Insights and wicked dead-on humor are to be found in Anthony Clarvoe’s new immigrant-experience play, “Ambition Facing West,” but both come and go fitfully, the final outcome more of a puzzlement than a revelation.
Is the play an indictment of the Old World and its Nazis and Fascists? A lament for woebegone Dalmatia/Croatia? A dramatization of the trials of being a non-English-speaking newcomer to the U.S.? Clarvoe himself doesn’t have a clear enough idea.
Based on his family’s own immigrant experience, “Ambition Facing West” was commissioned by Los Angeles’ Center Theater Group/
Mark Taper Forum and is scheduled for a production there later this year, along with productions at Seattle’s Intiman Theater, the Cleveland Play House and the Repertory Theater of St. Louis. Before those productions go into rehearsal, Clarvoe’s play cries out for rethinking and rewriting.
Right now the play wears the playwright’s learning too obviously as it drops references hither and yon, beginning with Medea and Jason and the Argonauts, and continuing with Shakespeare, Marco Polo, Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, Bulldog Drummond and the Shadow. As they’re dropped they resonate very little.
The play doesn’t lack for good ideas, particularly that of past and present Europe, America and Japan’s all occupying the same time and space, so that when young Stefan leaves Dalmatia for the U.S. in 1910 we already know what happens to him, his daughter and grandson. The point here is that in just three generations the family moves from peasant life in Dalmatia to business success in the U.S., then making a full circle (at least geographically) in an unexpected way.
But Clarvoe’s ideas haven’t been fleshed out with sufficient dramatic skill, remaining ideas rather than becoming a play. Trinity artistic director Oskar Eustis’ production has some clear-cut virtues, its cast of six playing 12 characters with skill (though sometimes too much noise).
As old, heavily accented Stefan, Timothy Crowe copes well with the overwritten speech he delivers to his teenage daughter toward the play’s end, and Anne Scurria, Phyllis Kay and William Damkoehler are vigorously committed to their various roles.
But it’s the cast’s two youngest members, both Trinity Rep Conservatory students, who are the most affecting: Mauro Hantman playing young Stefan as well as Stefan’s grandson and another young man; and Elizabeth Quincy radiantly playing Stefan’s intelligent daughter and a wealthy young girl in Dalmatia who, during the play’s opening scene, sails a toy boat on the moat that surrounds Christine Jones’ versatile set.