Israel Horovitz’s current obsession with death is again omnipresent in these two recent one-act plays, one of which, “Free Gift,” has already received several productions, while the other, “Stations of the Cross,” is receiving its stage premiere after its radio premiere on England’s BBC4 in June.
Horovitz is widely known for such one-acters as “The Indian Wants the Bronx” and “Line,” written more than 30 years ago, but it’s unlikely that either of these two new works will gain similar popularity. With only two characters, “Free Gift” has the better chance.
The fact that “Stations of the Cross” was originally a radio play may explain why it’s such a curiously clumsy stage piece. It takes place primarily on a train crossing England as American teacher and poet David Saltz (Horovitz) scatters the ashes of his dead sister Lila at the stations between Scarborough and Exeter. As he does so, he relives scenes from his past and meets fellow travelers as well as reading his poem “Stations of the Cross” at an English university honoring him.
It’s all very literary, sub-Dylan Thomas and hard to take, not least because the English characters Saltz chats with are British cliches, such as an excruciating Scottish vacuum-cleaner salesman. In addition, Saltz’s dead sister is played from childhood to middle age by three different actresses who indulge in entirely inappropriate modern dance. Radio listeners were spared this.
Horovitz played the central role of the writer in the BBC radio version of the play and does so again here. He knows how to project and, apart from a few slips of the tongue, gave a perfectly acceptable performance at the production’s opening. The rest of the cast is of variable quality and experience. The joint direction of Paul Dervis and Horovitz has been unable to find a focus that the play itself lacks.
“Free Gift” is being presented in a production mounted in Cambridge, Mass., in 1997 by Theater Redux. It was reportedly well-received then, but in Gloucester both play and production seem slight and slack, and, though running only around 45 minutes, padded.
Director Dervis certainly needs to urge his cast of two to bring more energy to their performances and to cut down on the unpregnant pauses. The play is also something of a tease: It ends at the very point where it promises to become most dramatic and involving.
Set in New York, it at first seems to be presenting a middle-aged white woman , Roselle Clarke (Judy Holmes), serving tea to Heather, a 26-year-old, smartly dressed black woman (Lisa Simmons) who is attempting to sell life insurance to her.
The white woman has a young black adopted son, Max, and as the play proceeds we learn that Max was left on her doorstep in a cardboard box as a 3-week-old baby 11 years earlier, and that Heather was his unmarried mother. She abandoned Max in order to give him some hope in life, but has since gone on to pull herself up by her bootstraps, and is now about to earn her Ph.D. in English.
Now Roselle has a fatal illness, and has engineered her meeting with Heather. But somehow there’s not enough in either the play or this production to make up for the fact that the audience is denied the actual meeting between Max and his biological mother and the relationship, if any, that might result.
Holmes and Simmons, though by no means unsympathetic, were low-key to the point of being hard to hear on opening night (the noise of a cooling fan exacerbated the problem; it was turned off for “Stations of the Cross”). Dervis’ direction also lacked sinew.
In a more deeply felt production, “Free Gift” may be more satisfying. “Stations of the Cross” needs more attention from Horovitz to make it stageworthy.