Muted isn’t quite the word for “Rain Dance,” Lanford Wilson’s play set on the eve of the big bang at Los Alamos in 1945. If the dramatic content of the play were translated, by some magical physics formula, into raw energy, the resulting combustion would scarcely disturb the downward trajectory of a feather. The four characters musing obliquely on their participation in the fateful goings-on, and on the potential consequences for humanity arising therefrom, are drawn in graceful, delicate strokes. And Guy Sanville’s cast brings a sure-footed, low-key warmth to their portrayals. But explosive the play certainly isn’t. Never before seen in New York, it makes for a thoughtful if tepid conclusion to the Signature Theater Co.’s Wilson season.
“Dawson’s Creek” star James Van Der Beek has the most animated role. He plays a young scientist from the Bronx who is fascinated by the American Indian culture of the Southwest to which he’s been exposed while working on the Manhattan Project. Ceaselessly prowling around the temporary “cantina” where the low-level staffers gather to socialize (designed with gritty, authentic-feeling detail by Christine Jones), Hank chatters enthusiastically about sacred grounds and the mystical wisdom of the local Indians.
This doesn’t sit well with the gruff, laid-back Tony (Randolph Mantooth), an actual Native American who has little patience for that kind of romantic hooey. “The Indians can’t hold all the mystery you kids pour into them,” he says dismissively. “They’re simple-living people. And poor. You can’t understand them, so you make them wonderful.” The poker-faced Tony, dignified in his wary cynicism, is an Army guard whose presence inhibits any overt discussion of the work being conducted by Hank and the play’s other two characters, a senior scientist, Peter (Harris Yulin), and his wife, Irene (Suzanne Regan).
As a result, for much of its 90-minute running time the play dances around the momentous activities taking place on the campus. There are casual allusions to the stellar lineup of scientists on hand — Fermi, Bohr, et al. — but this strictly naturalistic play doesn’t make heavy weather of the moral implications and scientific repercussions of the creation of the bomb. It is a decidedly minor-key riposte to Michael Frayn’s more stylized, ambitious and, truth be told, theatrically compelling “Copenhagen.” (“Rain Dance” was first produced at the Purple Rose Theater in Michigan in 2001.)
Wilson focuses on the psychological fallout dogging the spirits of his characters, particularly Hank. This idealistic youngster is deeply ambivalent about the work he’s been doing. At times, he’s giddy and proud to be working among such scientific all-stars, but as the hour of the detonation nears, deep shards of anger are revealed, as Hank rails against the desecration of the land he has come to love. Van Der Beek has a likable presence and gives an appealing performance, subtly telegraphing Hank’s increasing anxiety as a thunderstorm rumbles in the distance, a disturbing aural portent of the human holocaust about to be unleashed.
Tony, played with serene focus by Mantooth, remains quietly inscrutable while scorning the notion of Native Americans’ inscrutability. Regan’s Irene has a moist-eyed, slightly maternal warmth allied with a deep fund of womanly wisdom. Yulin gives a typically understated but rich perf in the play’s smallest role.
But there is something monochromatic about all the characters in the play — they remain well-drawn but fixed types who don’t evince any disarming facets or interrelationships (the unsurprising affair between Irene and Tony is revealed with typical casualness).
There are some chilling, thought-provoking moments amid the mild, reflective talk. Hank and Peter soberly discuss the selection of the Japanese cities to be bombed. “They’ll have to find some place not already damaged too badly,” Hank says. “Otherwise how can they properly judge the destruction?” Peter concurs. And Tony’s monologue about his strange career as a professional rain dancer in Europe, where the Indians were feted as colorful exotics, is an interesting piece of cultural history. But such moments cannot quite overcome the play’s general inertia. “Rain Dance” seems determined to examine a momentous turning point in recent history in the least momentous way possible.