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Quills

Quills (Geffen Playhouse; 498 seats; $ 37.50 top) Geffen Playhouse presents a play in two acts by Doug Wright. Directed by Adrian Hall. Set, Barry Robison; costumes, Melina Root; lighting, Peter Maradudin; music, Richard Cumming; hair and special effects makeup, Elena Breckenridge; casting, Pat McCorkle; production stage manager, Jill Johnson Gold; producing director, Gilbert Cates. Opened, reviewed Oct. 9, 1996; runs through Nov. 3. Running time: 2 hours, 45 min. Cast: Robert Dorfman (Doctor Royer-Collard), Paul Anthony Stewart (Monsieur Prouix), Margo Skinner (Renee Pelagie), Martin Rayner (Abbe de Coulmier), Howard Hesseman (the Marquis), Robin Terry (Madeleine Leclerc), David Permenter (Lunatic), Colette Kilroy (Madame Royer-Collard); Javier Armijo, Robert Baker, Antonia Bath, Kirsten Beyer, Jeremy Lee, CB Smith. Doug Wright, who penned "Quills," has a keen ear for the elegancies of speech, and he puts it to use to serve up some very inelegant behavior in his new play about the Marquis de Sade, the first offering of the inaugural season at the Geffen Playhouse. An almost dizzyingly smart souffle of ideas about manners and morals, crime and punishment , the roots of art and the dangers of censorship presented in an audacious mixture of styles that blends drawing-room comedy with Grand Guignol, "Quills" is an admirably ambitious debut for the new playhouse. It may have been a little too ambitious: A strong showing from TV vet Howard Hesseman notwithstanding, the production doesn't always do justice to the play's complexities, accenting the courage of its comic reach, while letting the darker hues fade into the background. In the Charenton Asylum, where the iconoclastic aristocrat spent his final days, chief administrator Dr. Royer-Collard (Robert Dorfman) receives a visit from the Marquis' wife (Margo Skinner), in dire distress that the imprisonment of her wayward husband for various sexual improprieties has not served to quell his literary output. The asylum has provided ample time and opportunity for him to unburden his perfervid mind of its violent erotic fantasies, leaving the reputation of his genteel spouse "stretched on the rack of ignominy," as she appropriately puts it, in one of the play's many ironic indications that the Marquis' linguistic style, if not his behavior, tends to have an infectious appeal. With his own reputation now at stake, Royer-Collard promptly enlists the aid of the Abbe de Coulmier (Martin Rayner) to silence the Marquis, and a battle of wills begins that finds the good Abbe resorting to ever greater cruelties to bring the Marquis into submission, a delicious turn of events in which the Marquis, though its victim, cannot but exult: The impulses this set-to unleashes in everyone only bear out the philosophies his writings so colorfully espouse, that man is at heart an animal governed by the crudest of urges, and to pretend otherwise is hypocrisy. "We eat, we shit, we kill, we die, " he spits at the Abbe in one of their early confrontations. Hesseman seems to exult in the glorious excesses of the role: He reads excerpts from the Marquis' gruesome tales of wayward nuns and defrocked priests with comic relish, and trades philosophical aphorisms with the Abbe with wry insouciance. "Not content to be my jailer, you also wish to be my editor," he quips when the Abbe announces he's depriving the Marquis of quills and paper. It is this that sets the play's action on a darker trajectory. "The artist thrives in conditions of adversity!" the Marquis rages, and proceeds to prove his point, as he finds ever more grisly ways of maintaining his literary output. When his outpourings lead to a violent act, Wright leaves us with the tantalizing question of whether it was the words themselves, or the attempt to eradicate them, that brought about the tragedy, one of many moral and intellectual conundrums the play leaves open to debate. Unfortunately, the production does far more justice to the Marquis than his captors. The problem begins in the first scene, with the ill-conceived performance of Dorfman as the warden. Punching up his lines with fey vocal flourishes that make rather questionable the warden's concern for his wife's fidelity, not to mention a reference to his "pragmatism and reserve," Dorfman plays in high camp mode, earning easy laughs, to be sure, but cheapening the play's wit; in the warden's scenes, and they are several, Wright's aptitude for one-liners becomes all too apparent, and we forget the dark moral questions that are the play's underpinnings. Indeed, throughout the play the author displays a surer hand for comedy, language and ideas than character, with the result that everyone on stage seems to share the same erudite wit. When the laundry maid responds to one of the Marquis' purple propositions by saying, "Some things belong on paper, others in life," we hear the author talking. To offset this tendency, a level of acting is required that director Adrian Hall often fails to reach. Robin Terry is just adequate as that laundry maid, the prime object of the Marquis' dangerous attentions. Most significantly, Rayner's Abbe lacks the gravitas that would make him a match for the Marquis. His performance is technically faultless, but the Abbe's passion for his own ideas of good should rival the Marquis,' and it doesn't; Hesseman wipes the stage with the Abbe's robes, so his downfall doesn't have the resonance it could. There's no lack of theatrical vigor in the technical aspects of the production. The set by Barry Robison makes excellent use of the playhouse's stone walls, which need just a hint of stagecraft to seem properly punishing. Spooky harpsichord music by Richard Cumming is used to fine effect, though Peter Maradudin's lighting is a little lacking in color. (This and a few other aspects of the production seem a studied effort not to replicate the play's premiere production, at the New York Theater Workshop, now of "Rent" fame; in particular the coup de theatre that closes act one played as a violent shock there, while here the staging is less effective.) In his introductory note, Geffen producing director Gilbert Cates is at pains to justify some of the play's provocations, and indeed Sade's extravagantly detailed tastes for sexually tinged cruelties one is at a loss without use of the word sadism are reproduced with an accuracy that is properly horrific. But audiences are likely to be distracted from the play's linguistic shocks by the more visceral spectacle of Mr. Hesseman playing in the buff from midway on, a development that while dictated by the text becomes somewhat unnerving. But even that startling fillip is in keeping with a play that, as did the Marquis himself, looks squarely at some of the unhappier truths about human nature, truths that are borne out in the grim headlines of history and the tabloids. That it can make us laugh at horrors without trivializing them is a sign that Doug Wright's is likely to be a voice of uncommon significance. Charles Isherwood Quills

Quills (Geffen Playhouse; 498 seats; $ 37.50 top) Geffen Playhouse presents a play in two acts by Doug Wright. Directed by Adrian Hall. Set, Barry Robison; costumes, Melina Root; lighting, Peter Maradudin; music, Richard Cumming; hair and special effects makeup, Elena Breckenridge; casting, Pat McCorkle; production stage manager, Jill Johnson Gold; producing director, Gilbert Cates. Opened, reviewed Oct. 9, 1996; runs through Nov. 3. Running time: 2 hours, 45 min. Cast: Robert Dorfman (Doctor Royer-Collard), Paul Anthony Stewart (Monsieur Prouix), Margo Skinner (Renee Pelagie), Martin Rayner (Abbe de Coulmier), Howard Hesseman (the Marquis), Robin Terry (Madeleine Leclerc), David Permenter (Lunatic), Colette Kilroy (Madame Royer-Collard); Javier Armijo, Robert Baker, Antonia Bath, Kirsten Beyer, Jeremy Lee, CB Smith. Doug Wright, who penned “Quills,” has a keen ear for the elegancies of speech, and he puts it to use to serve up some very inelegant behavior in his new play about the Marquis de Sade, the first offering of the inaugural season at the Geffen Playhouse. An almost dizzyingly smart souffle of ideas about manners and morals, crime and punishment , the roots of art and the dangers of censorship presented in an audacious mixture of styles that blends drawing-room comedy with Grand Guignol, “Quills” is an admirably ambitious debut for the new playhouse. It may have been a little too ambitious: A strong showing from TV vet Howard Hesseman notwithstanding, the production doesn’t always do justice to the play’s complexities, accenting the courage of its comic reach, while letting the darker hues fade into the background. In the Charenton Asylum, where the iconoclastic aristocrat spent his final days, chief administrator Dr. Royer-Collard (Robert Dorfman) receives a visit from the Marquis’ wife (Margo Skinner), in dire distress that the imprisonment of her wayward husband for various sexual improprieties has not served to quell his literary output. The asylum has provided ample time and opportunity for him to unburden his perfervid mind of its violent erotic fantasies, leaving the reputation of his genteel spouse “stretched on the rack of ignominy,” as she appropriately puts it, in one of the play’s many ironic indications that the Marquis’ linguistic style, if not his behavior, tends to have an infectious appeal. With his own reputation now at stake, Royer-Collard promptly enlists the aid of the Abbe de Coulmier (Martin Rayner) to silence the Marquis, and a battle of wills begins that finds the good Abbe resorting to ever greater cruelties to bring the Marquis into submission, a delicious turn of events in which the Marquis, though its victim, cannot but exult: The impulses this set-to unleashes in everyone only bear out the philosophies his writings so colorfully espouse, that man is at heart an animal governed by the crudest of urges, and to pretend otherwise is hypocrisy. “We eat, we shit, we kill, we die, ” he spits at the Abbe in one of their early confrontations. Hesseman seems to exult in the glorious excesses of the role: He reads excerpts from the Marquis’ gruesome tales of wayward nuns and defrocked priests with comic relish, and trades philosophical aphorisms with the Abbe with wry insouciance. “Not content to be my jailer, you also wish to be my editor,” he quips when the Abbe announces he’s depriving the Marquis of quills and paper. It is this that sets the play’s action on a darker trajectory. “The artist thrives in conditions of adversity!” the Marquis rages, and proceeds to prove his point, as he finds ever more grisly ways of maintaining his literary output. When his outpourings lead to a violent act, Wright leaves us with the tantalizing question of whether it was the words themselves, or the attempt to eradicate them, that brought about the tragedy, one of many moral and intellectual conundrums the play leaves open to debate. Unfortunately, the production does far more justice to the Marquis than his captors. The problem begins in the first scene, with the ill-conceived performance of Dorfman as the warden. Punching up his lines with fey vocal flourishes that make rather questionable the warden’s concern for his wife’s fidelity, not to mention a reference to his “pragmatism and reserve,” Dorfman plays in high camp mode, earning easy laughs, to be sure, but cheapening the play’s wit; in the warden’s scenes, and they are several, Wright’s aptitude for one-liners becomes all too apparent, and we forget the dark moral questions that are the play’s underpinnings. Indeed, throughout the play the author displays a surer hand for comedy, language and ideas than character, with the result that everyone on stage seems to share the same erudite wit. When the laundry maid responds to one of the Marquis’ purple propositions by saying, “Some things belong on paper, others in life,” we hear the author talking. To offset this tendency, a level of acting is required that director Adrian Hall often fails to reach. Robin Terry is just adequate as that laundry maid, the prime object of the Marquis’ dangerous attentions. Most significantly, Rayner’s Abbe lacks the gravitas that would make him a match for the Marquis. His performance is technically faultless, but the Abbe’s passion for his own ideas of good should rival the Marquis,’ and it doesn’t; Hesseman wipes the stage with the Abbe’s robes, so his downfall doesn’t have the resonance it could. There’s no lack of theatrical vigor in the technical aspects of the production. The set by Barry Robison makes excellent use of the playhouse’s stone walls, which need just a hint of stagecraft to seem properly punishing. Spooky harpsichord music by Richard Cumming is used to fine effect, though Peter Maradudin’s lighting is a little lacking in color. (This and a few other aspects of the production seem a studied effort not to replicate the play’s premiere production, at the New York Theater Workshop, now of “Rent” fame; in particular the coup de theatre that closes act one played as a violent shock there, while here the staging is less effective.) In his introductory note, Geffen producing director Gilbert Cates is at pains to justify some of the play’s provocations, and indeed Sade’s extravagantly detailed tastes for sexually tinged cruelties one is at a loss without use of the word sadism are reproduced with an accuracy that is properly horrific. But audiences are likely to be distracted from the play’s linguistic shocks by the more visceral spectacle of Mr. Hesseman playing in the buff from midway on, a development that while dictated by the text becomes somewhat unnerving. But even that startling fillip is in keeping with a play that, as did the Marquis himself, looks squarely at some of the unhappier truths about human nature, truths that are borne out in the grim headlines of history and the tabloids. That it can make us laugh at horrors without trivializing them is a sign that Doug Wright’s is likely to be a voice of uncommon significance. Charles Isherwood Quills

Quills

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