A picaresque epic of a lost soul in search of himself in the early 1800s, Howard Korder’s “The Hollow Lands” is thematically ambitious but not narratively sound. Overflowing with metaphors about the New World, the play captures the rootlessness, violence and perennial dissatisfaction that underlies the American sensibility. But, severely lacking in character development and frustratingly repetitive in its concerns, “The Hollow Lands” spans a continent, covers a period of 40 years, lasts over three hours and never really seems to get started.
The play follows James Newman (Michael Stuhlbarg), and his surname signals that we’re in the land of allegory. This new man arrives in the New World to make a new life. He finds a job with a grocer in New York, where he falls for his employer’s wife, Mercy (Rene Augesen).
When the grocer is murdered (there’s death in every act, just in case one forgets that America was and is a violent place), James and Mercy set off west, with James determined to “progress.” The first act ends on a note of optimism, with the happy couple dancing in the woods in front of some peaceful natives.
Once the couple settles down in St. Louis, James starts getting restless again. Mercy, who had been captured by Indians as a child and then rescued, wants nothing more than a life of pleasant stability and simple pleasures. But James won’t be satisfied without the thrill of discovery.
His ambitions are aroused when he encounters acquaintances from N.Y., particularly Samuel Markham Hayes, a wealthy explorer determined to make his claim on unchartered territory. Played to great effect by Mark Harelik, Hayes is the most successful of Korder’s symbolic figures, an absurd, over-the-top braggadocio who’s as much used-car salesman as pioneer.
If there is a particular point when the play falls apart — or, more accurately, never comes together — it’s in this middle section. James is torn between his restless desire for exploration and his obligations to Mercy and their new baby boy. But Hayes and his pathetic followers are not strong tempters , so when James decides to leave Mercy behind and continue moving west, it’s impossible to see the protagonist as anything other than a gullible fool.
And James’ search for greatness, for freedom, for new-ness, turns sour so rapidly that the play begins a march back toward Mercy — the literal character and the figurative act of forgiveness —soon after he’s left her.
While James’ quest continues to provide opportunities for picturesque sets from Ming Cho Lee (the production values under David Chamber’s direction are uniformly outstanding), what story is left is predictable and uninvolving. Most time is spent furthering the poetic metaphors and revisiting characters who were never very interesting in the first place.
Korder, hailed as a David Mamet protege when he burst on the scene in the late ’80s, still has a strong voice and an occasionally clever wit. As a master of the contemporary idiom, however, the scribe is outside his territory here, and most of the language feels flat even when he’s finding humor in the highfalutin: “This country is killing me,” claims Hayes, who can find the freedom he’s looking for only in death.
When his slave, Roscius, the most civilized character in the play, reminds him that it’s syphilis and not America that’s killing him, Hayes has a quick rebuttal: “You have no poetry in you.”
There is some poetry in “The Hollow Lands,” but it isn’t nearly enough to salvage this grandiose mess.