Craig Lucas has placed the world on the couch with “Singing Forest,” his long-in-development three-act work that takes a sweeping and analytical look at the effects of history on the lives of some compelling, cruel and comical characters. In attempting something larger — and more achingly personal — than anything he has written before, the playwright of such intimate works as “Reckless,” “Prelude to a Kiss” and “The Dying Gaul” is now working on a broader canvas, with themes of denial, abandonment and identity — not to mention Freud, Hitler and Starbucks.
In the three-hour-plus multigenerational work, Lucas juggles time with memory, farce with tragedy and world events with individual crises. Sometimes these balls are dropped with a technique that’s klutzy and a manner that’s glib. But mostly the playwright succeeds in a dazzling feat of imagination that acts as shock therapy to those living in a contemporary dreamstate.
The nine-actor/multiple-role play is much revised since last summer’s run at Seattle’s Intiman Theater, which had the same director — Bartlett Sher — but a largely different cast. Though the Long Wharf stage isn’t quite the right physical fit for the production (John McDermott’s set is functional though not transformative), it gives Lucas the opportunity to further tool his ambitious work. There’s still sharpening to be done, presumably with assistance from dramaturge Oskar Eustis, who will take over New York’s Public Theater this year.
Here longtime Lucas actor Robin Bartlett gives a career-stretching and career-defining perf as the hilarious, exasperating and ultimately tragic Loe Rieman. An octogenarian who as a girl in Vienna in the ’30s was a patient of Freud, Loe lost her family to the Nazis, became a lay analyst in the U.S. and now faces a life estranged from her family and herself. She feels new terror as past and present storms approach (cue rolling thunder).
As the play opens in 2000, Loe attends an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. “I like the anonymous part,” she wisecracks, dismissing an elderly man (Ben Hammer) who tries to be friendly. It’s a family trait, it seems. Her daughter Bertha (a wonderfully unnerved Kristine Nielsen) is an agoraphobe; her psychiatrist son Oliver (John Vickery) is a secret mischief-maker from afar; and her grandson Jules (Mark H. Dold) is a reclusive kazillionaire. Loe further hides her identity working in the phone sex business, offering more therapy than titillation for her clients.
But there are a lot of other disassociated, anxious, unfulfilled characters out there, like Gray (marvelously played by Hamish Linklater), an out-of-work actor Jules hires to go into therapy in his stead and then report the results back to him. There’s his pregnant girlfriend, Beth (Kristin Flanders), who works at Starbucks with boytoy Laz (Roderick Hill), who just happens to be the lover of both Oliver and another psychiatrist (Henry Stram), both of whom Gray is seeing on behalf of Jules. Complicated? Coincidental? It’s just the beginning.
These are appalling, self-centered, delusional people, finding interest only in their own angst. They traffic in secrets, whether it be in search of identities, fantasies or retribution. They look for the answers in dreams but are incapable of living in any larger or real world beyond that of their own ego, superego or id.
In the second act, the play trips back and forth in time. As life gets increasingly crazed in the present tense, Lucas returns to Loe’s childhood in Vienna, where we meet her adored gay brother Walter, along with his lover, her father and family friend Freud. In the third act, both worlds collide, characters are connected, secrets are revealed and plots are untied.
And while Freud says there are no accidents, there is dramaturgy.
Even with more than three hours, necessary information feels shoehorned in (one line refers to a character’s wish of being a German translator at the U.N. for no particular purpose other than to explain why she later can read volumes of Loe’s diaries). Character histories are mentioned more for shock value and are never explained or developed (for example, Loe’s daughter’s marriage and setting her husband afire, or her son anonymously giving away millions to artists).
Also uneven are Lucas’ attempts to theatrically dazzle, which sometimes strain both style and logic. Efforts to get all his characters into Loe’s Staten Island apartment for the climactic third act are belabored. Once there, the farce is forced beyond measure, a rare slip in Sher’s otherwise smart and delicate direction. And though he has avoided sermonizing for more than three hours, Lucas allows his characters to succumb to a bit of sentimental summing-up, an unfortunate glitch in a work that is often brave in its willingness not to play it safe.
The play ends with the family reunited by real truths and not false hopes, along with a willingness to accept the horrible, wonderful, complicated entirety. But they — and the play — are still a few sessions short of a whole.