At the end of July, the Perry Street Theater will be razed to make room for more condos in the West Village, but for now, it’s still singing its swan song. Sallie Bingham’s “Treason,” the final tenant of this Off Broadway house — which hosted the New York Theater Workshop in the late ’80s — plays like an epitaph for the building, using the life of Ezra Pound to comment on the intersections of art, passion and ideology. If only those ideas were more clearly stated, the Perry Street’s last hurrah might have been more memorable.
But at least there’s Philip Pleasants. His performance as Pound — the brilliant, anti-Semitic American poet — makes it perfectly clear how a man with unsavory ideas can still enthrall everyone he meets. Eyes glittering like jewels, Pleasants fills the character with an equal zeal for every event of his life, which the play tracks in chronological order from his pro-Mussolini days in WWII Italy to his time in an American mental hospital to his convalescence in Venice.
Whether he’s wooing wife Dorothy (Jennifer Sternberg) and mistress Olga (Nicole Orth Pallavicini) or delivering the pro-Fascist radio addresses that get him charged with treason in U.S. courts, Pleasants’ Pound always seems delighted with himself.
Such unwavering vigor is not only infectious but appropriate, considering how Bingham structures her plot. Pound needs to be an unchanging force because the true focus of the play is not the poet but those affected by his genius.
We’re meant to see how Pound’s intensity alters the lives of lovers (Dorothy, Olga and an assortment of girlfriends), ideologues (infamous anti-Semite John Kasper, played by David B. Huevelman) and fellow artists (Allen Ginsberg, also Huevelman). These satellite characters are the ones whose choices propel the action, like when Dorothy decides Pound should stay in the mental ward rather than go to jail.
Director Martin Platt repeatedly illustrates Pound’s power dynamic by keeping Pleasants several feet removed from other thesps onstage. Or when they’re close, thesp is on a different level — sitting, say, while others stand — in order to make his separateness distinct.
Unfortunately, wan perfs from the supporting cast also keep Pleasants distinct in unhelpful ways. Pallavicini, for instance, makes Olga so muted that this supposed keeper of Pound’s heart seems instead like a paper doll that could crumple in the wake of his gale force.
His relationships may be imbalanced, but if Pound’s associates show no spirit of their own, then his influence over them becomes inevitable and uninteresting to watch.
Eventually, Sternberg does make Dorothy seem like her husband’s match, but her assertiveness comes too late. The production has already become a repetitive display of the poet toppling the weak.
Meanwhile, Bingham succumbs to Pound’s allure herself, overwriting his speeches to the point of distraction. In almost every scene, she lets him hold forth on his own poems or analyze works by Eliot or Yeats. These academic monologues halt the narrative, letting the play’s conflicts go slack.
And no character — no matter how intriguing his biography — can overcome such soporific obstacles.