Comfortably familiar companionship at home or transitory erotic excitement abroad? When both have such palpable pleasures, it’s a drag to have to make a choice. That’s the issue at the heart of “Silk,” adapted from Italian scribe Alessandro Baricco’s flowery, bestselling novella by Mary Zimmerman. The one-act play at the Goodman Theater feels unfinished and (right now) lacks the obvious emotional tugs of her Broadway hit “Metamorphoses.” But boy, potential oozes. As in her past, Zimmerman explores sex-and-love dichotomies and paradoxes that burrow under the skin and fester.
Already richly textured, measured, intelligent and delicately sexy (in a seductively repressed kind of way), the Japanese-influenced “Silk” will have a life, for sure. Fix a couple of major issues and this provocatively upscale affair could travel deluxe to any number of points east.
Here’s the core problem: Zimmerman’s adaptation is far too heavy on narration — it feels like we’re hearing, rather than seeing, almost every word on the page — and far too light on dramatization. As a result, we get to know and love the ubiquitous and peripatetic narrator, played by Christopher Donohue, while Herve Joncour (Ryan Artzbeger), the central figure in the Baricco novel, remains a shadowy, inconsequential figure with too little hold on our emotions.
This is a serious issue because “Silk” revolves around the Joncour character: If we don’t care about this French silkworm merchant, then we don’t care about the whole darn sewing match. It’s not entirely clear whether the passive Artzberger (Pericles in Zimmerman’s recent D.C. staging) is miscast or simply hemmed in by the narrative structure of the piece. Either way, that character has to show us a lot more than ponderous introspection — he has to quietly throb with desire. Currently, this is a theatrical novella with a hole of epic proportions.
Set in France and Japan between 1860 and 1874, “Silk” is about Joncour’s quest to persuade a Japanese lord to give up the healthy silkworm eggs that will make it possible for Joncour’s town to survive economically.
At home, Joncour is happily — if prosaically — married to Helene (Colleen Delany, a delicious mix of the beauteous and the familiar), but while on the Japanese business trip, he encounters a woman “with European eyes” who enraptures him for good.
Over the years that follow, their strange, obsessive relationship is continued via exotic, illicit correspondence, helpfully translated by a Japanese women living in France. There is a brief but enrapturing congress and a lifetime of obsession, made all the more dangerous by an impending war that makes the relationship even more inconceivable.
“Silk” also carries a narrative sting in its tail that makes this rather more than the love triangle the audience is led to expect. At the Goodman opening, that surprise delivered the necessary zing to the audience.
Visually, it’s hard to fault the piece. A flat, heavy-wood France opens to reveal a lush Eastern world of floral fragrance and mysticism. There are many moments that are simply gorgeous.
Indeed, Zimmerman tells the story with great clarity and enough earnestness that the excesses of the prose are grounded in deeper issues. The women in the show are uniformly strong, and while the sexual core of the piece could become much more climactic, the show already is keyed into all the right senses.
If Zimmerman now can get herself into the flawed heart and sexual drive of the well-meaning, desperate everyman at the heart of this story, the project will thrive. But she can’t dodge that prerequisite.