Wallace and Clara, the married couple at the core of Eliza Anderson’s elusive, fragmentary new play, “The New England Sonata,” are known in the small New England town on the outskirts of which they live as “the poet and the novelist.” In other words, as oddities, which indeed they are. They suffer through strained relationships with other people, alienation, illness and deaths. And yet we never really get to know them — all the characters in the play remain at a disconnect with one another and the audience.
The dialogue attempts to be literary, poetic and musical (note the play’s title), complete with classical references. While Wallace (Timothy Crowe) is upstairs at his computer working on a novel, Clara (Amy Van Nostrand) is downstairs jotting bits and pieces of poetry into a notebook. He has been told that he has a fatal illness; she drifts in and out of insanity and asylums.
Wallace’s mother, Eleanor (Barbara Meek), comes to visit from Florida. She suggests that when he becomes ill, he and Clara, whom Eleanor dislikes, should move to Florida. Eventually both Eleanor and Clara die, and Wallace is left with Pip (Andy Macdonald), a strange young man up a tree who has opted out of life and is surviving by scavenging in the woods around Clara and Wallace’s old farmhouse.
“The New England Sonata” never succeeds in plumbing its characters’ depths in a way that would give dramatic meaning to its sadness. Anderson seems to be aiming at a dramatic version of musical impressionism. The attempt fails her, and lapses into sentimentality do not help.
The cast is accomplished, and David Jenkins has designed a fascinating raw-wood set that takes up the full wide width of the stage. The farmhouse and its surrounding woods merge amid dozens of tree trunks, to the point where Wallace’s office looks as though it’s in a treehouse.
Nevertheless the play doesn’t establish a strong sense of place, which is meant to be a central point. This may be partly because Amanda Dehnert’s otherwise assured direction, which blends scenes seamlessly, makes too little use of the woodsy set’s potential. But mostly it’s because Anderson hasn’t written a play of audience-involving dimensions.