Weird is the word for “Wrong Mountain,” a pompous spitball of a play aimed squarely at the eye of its audience. The arrival on Broadway of a comedy whose protagonist spends a fair amount of its running time orating on the puerility and vacuousness of commercial theater is certainly a rich irony, and it will likely prove to be a very expensive one for the show’s producers. That “Wrong Mountain” is the first Broadway production to open in the new century, and the first “serious” new American play of this Broadway season, only deepens the sense of strangeness — and eventually despair — you feel as you watch its author, David Hirson, so enthusiastically and so artlessly flogging what is dangerously near to being a dead horse anyway.
If Hirson’s attack on the debased state of theater came in the form of a play of real humanity or fresh insight, the self-righteousness of “Wrong Mountain” might be bracingly medicinal, but it’s a shrill, simplistic and rather muddled play, not so much a drama as a series of self-conscious, high-handed screeds, snipes and debates adorned with a few stray dollops of redemption.
Hirson’s first and only previous play, “La Bete,” was a notorious Broadway flop in 1991. Acclaimed by some critics but panned by the New York Times, it closed after 24 performances, only to become a cause celebre when various showbiz luminaries came to its defense. “Wrong Mountain” is not written in verse, as was “La Bete,” and it is not set in the 17th century, but its themes are essentially the same, and it is marked by the same impressive verbal facility. Both concern the struggle of the artist to maintain integrity in a world where only the vulgar can succeed, but while Elomire, the actor-playwright of “La Bete,” stood fast against the barbarians at the gate, Henry Dennett (Ron Rifkin), the poet and protagonist of “Wrong Mountain,” decides to beat them at their own game.
Over an astonishingly unpleasant Christmas dinner that sets the keynote for far too much of the play, the artistically respected nonentity Henry spars with his ex-wife Claire’s new fiance, the fabulously popular playwright Guy Halperin (Michael Winters).
While his intellectual snob kids egg him on and the bitchy Claire taunts him, the smug-but-smart Henry proceeds to eviscerate the smug-but-dumb Guy, rolling out carefully scripted insults at the folks on the other side of the footlights (that’s us, the “suburban know-nothings”), and deriding theater as “sanctimonious kitsch” and “a macabre peep show for third-rate minds eager to have their sympathies titillated and their sense of humanity massaged by the dime-store imaginings of second-rate minds.”
That’s just for starters, really, and to prove just how facile the business of playwrighting is, Henry bets that within six months he can write a play and get it produced. “I could toss off a piece of pornography like that before I finished my first wank in the morning!” is how Henry, the highbrow versifier, actually puts it.
As played with dogged nastiness by Rifkin, Henry is such an outlandishly repellent man that it’s clear we’re not meant simply to sympathize with him. He’s a sick guy, this Henry, infected with a gruesome intestinal worm symbolizing some far deeper malaise — though if we fail to chuckle at his endless, noxious witticisms, we risk being classified among the “whinnying blockheads” too dim to see the truth in his analysis of American culture, heavy-handed as it is.
Although Henry’s cruelty and superciliousness are so exaggerated as to be intentionally off-putting, it’s hard not to believe his contempt for today’s theater is shared by his creator. At the regional theater where Henry’s play is one of three finalists in a competition, we meet a host of ludicrously portrayed drama enthusiasts, led by the preening Maurice Montesor (Daniel Davis), an effeminate actor with a bad dye job readying to play Romeo at a pathetically advanced age. Also on hand are various fatuous actors ripe for Henry’s (and our) scorn.
But under the influence of the mysterious waters he quaffs from a local fountain, Henry begins succumbing to the worldly blandishments of flattery and camaraderie and success. In the end, in fact, the lucky fellow gets to have things every which way! By the time he’s won the now-coveted prize and humiliated Guy by his easy mastery of the dramatic form, Henry is on the other side of the debating table, arguing with equally vituperative eloquence against the elitism he’d been espousing only minutes before.
When his son turns his words against him, dismissing his play as “crap,” Henry rails, “I’m sorry I invited you! You and the rest of the Art Police, for whom nothing can ever be worthy unless it’s obscure!” When did he turn in his badge?
That Henry can move so smoothly from one pole to another on this cultural debate — fancy water or no fancy water — indicates that Hirson hasn’t created a plausible character but rather a mouthpiece for flashily written diatribes. Hirson has said that his play is not to be viewed as a referendum on theater or even art but on more personal questions. But for a play to seriously engage such themes as “coming to terms with who you actually are” and “what is a good life,” as Hirson has suggested “Wrong Mountain” aims to, it must first be about actual people.
“Wrong Mountain” isn’t. Its characters are about as human as the performers in porn movies, to borrow Henry’s favorite metaphor for theater. When they are not merely buffoons, all speak in some variation on the informed and adroit voice of their author. This provides for some elegantly phrased debates, to be sure, but these grow wearying quickly. David Hare covered some of this territory with far more finesse and feeling in “Amy’s View,” and even Richard Greenberg’s sour “Hurrah at Last” painted its portrait of the artist as a young misanthrope in more empathetic strokes.
Indeed, despite a few redeeming moments granted to Henry and the flamboyantly silly Maurice, there’s something ugly at the heart of this play: Hirson seems to divide humanity into the repellent and the ridiculous. Only to a couple of underwritten minor players can our sympathy be respectably extended: Maurice’s daughter Ariel and the competing playwright Clifford. How do we know they’re the good guys? Because they recognize Henry’s quotations from Auden and Strindberg and Wilde. (The play is lousy with erudition: You could fill several syllabuses — or is it syllabi, Henry? — with the literary names dropped in these two acts.)
Aside from Davis’ professional scene-stealing as the grandiloquently silly Maurice and Rifkin’s convincingly confused Henry, the large cast of talented comic actors has little to do. Richard Jones’ direction doesn’t succeed in masking the play’s schematic and disjointed feeling, while Giles Cadle’s sets manage to look both overscaled and dwarfed by the large O’Neill proscenium.
Some of Hirson’s aesthetic positions are obviously unassailable, but they’re not exactly news. Yes, Broadway is in a bad way, as anyone who’s heard anything about “Saturday Night Fever” knows. Yes, mediocrity sells, and art doesn’t pay the bills. But “Wrong Mountain” leaves the heart just as untouched, the soul just as parched, as do the money-making mega-musicals down the block. Henry Dennett would doubtless sneer at the trendy catch phrase, but one is nevertheless inclined to tell Mr. Hirson that if he’s not part of the solution, he’s part of the problem.