Most contemporary plays seeking a portion of classical tragedy’s terrible grandeur fall wide of the mark: When a modern Oedipus curses the Fates, we tend to get embarrassed by his bombast instead of wrapped up in his destiny. Sheila Callaghan’s “Lascivious Something,” presented by Circle X, achieves its mythic ambitions to a surprising degree, though she had to plop the action onto a Greek island to do it.
Her aspirant to stature is August (Silas Weir Mitchell), a one-time ’60s radical whom we meet, symbolically enough, on the November day in 1980 when August’s sworn enemy of Berkeley days has gotten himself elected president.
To be sure, our hero opted out from the struggle against then-governor Reagan 14 years ago, escaping to the Mediterranean arms of the ethereal Daphne (Olivia Henry). Now his hoped-for revolutions are in babymaking and winemaking, as he awaits the birth of his child and, more immediately, his output’s ceremonial first tasting. (August eats dirt as a sign of elemental appetites.)
An even more elemental appetite is aroused with the arrival of Liza (Alina Phelan), his erstwhile comrade-in-arms and animalistic lover. (Around August’s household she’s known as “the one who bites.”) For a while, the “lascivious something” Liza represents merely tugs at the marriage bonds, setting up a moody domestic triangle full of meaningful stares and raised eyebrows.
But then Callaghan starts to bring out her magical-realism big guns, including direct-address appeals to Greek legends, and an androgynous girl named Boy (Alana Dietze), a Dionysian figure about whom the characters play fast and loose with both pronouns and hands. There’s also a repeated device whereby a scene ends in violence (a primal scream! A smashed wine glass!) only to rewind and play out again more politely. Clothes get strewn about, eyes opened and secrets told, secrets often requiring a considerable suspension of disbelief.
It’s as if the beating sun and all the booze consumed were making our heads spin as well as the characters’. In any event, Callaghan, helmer Paul Willis and his game, brave actors do eventually pull us into the heightened framework. We’re made to care to a remarkable extent about the answer to Liza’s insistent existential question — “Who are you, August?” — and about the conflict – soon to be America’s, of course – between his ’60s ideals and hatred of materialism, and his current co-opting by privilege and leisure.
Mitchell hits all the right Hemingwayish, lion-in-winter notes in the tug of war among his women and his dreams. You can easily believe him as catnip to these ladies, while Henry’s seductive perfume justifies his whispered “You have stolen my breath.” For his/her part, Dietze’s Boy is as pleasingly mysterious as the role’s conception.
Phelan is more problematic, a good decade too young and quite the opposite of her description as “saggy; doesn’t take care of herself.” Yet she possesses the spark to set off the play’s requisite fireworks.
With paint skillfully applied to drop and platforms, and artful lighting, Sybil Wickersheimer and Thomas Ontiveros (respectively) create on the little [Inside] the Ford stage more exotic romance than a score of “Mamma Mia!” tours.
All the more disappointing that the characters sound as if they’re rattling around at the bottom of a trash can, the incessant metallic echo pretty much destroying any illusion of the great outdoors.
Originally commissioned by South Coast Rep, “Lascivious Something” is scheduled for Gotham’s Cherry Lane under the aegis of the Women’s Project later this year.