“I don’t like Lowell,” says a young poet in “The Poison Tree,” referring to the late poet, Robert Lowell, “but I respect his tragedy.” Robert Glaudini’s play, receiving its world premiere at the Taper, is filled with such judgmental comments from pompous people. This would usually be the stuff of social satire, but although this work brims with pointed commentary on the staid, upper crust society of La Jolla, that’s not quite what Glaudini’s up to. Exactly what he is trying to do remains elusive, but he walks a very fine line between writing about pretentious characters and writing a pretentious play. In the end, it’s an awful lot easier to respect this lyrical, enigmatic, dense, undisciplined work than it is to like it.
If anything, Glaudini simply tries to do too much. At the center of the play stands Rockie Rogers, played by the commanding Anne Archer. Rockie is a 40-ish woman, who talks frequently of her flashy past, when she supposedly cavorted with Jean-Paul Sartre and Man-Ray when she was a teenager. Now she’s married to the oh-so-respectable superior court judge Ronald Rogers, living in a beautiful home on the hills of La Jolla — which are captured spectacularly on David Jenkins’ set.
Two years ago, Rockie’s son Matthew died in this very house after years of heroin addiction, and Rockie has not recovered from his death. Her emotional fragility is one reason Ronald (Bob Gunton) is so very indulgent toward his wife , usually apologizing at the first signs of an argument. As an “outlet,” Rockie has joined a poetry group run by the young poet, St. Gerude, who teaches at the local university and whom Rockie considers a genius. His name — “He won’t use his real name until there’s peace in the Balkans” — is intriguing and pretentious, just like the man, and tall, dark and handsome Christian Camargo manages to make him surprisingly likable.
Responding to Ronald’s jealousy, Rockie insists she’s not interested in St. Gerude except as a mentor for her work, but the sizzling sexual tension between the two is apparent nonetheless. What also comes through in Archer’s multilayered portrayal is that no matter how much she loves her husband, and how much she’d like to lead a respectable life — she feels guilty for her past drug-use and its effect on Matthew — Rockie finds her bourgeois life thoroughly dull.
So that’s mostly what’s going on with Rockie. Then there’s Ronald, who comes with a whole different set of circumstances and contradictions. He’s been nominated for a federal appeals court and is awaiting confirmation. While he insists that he despises politics and never considers it, Ronald is certainly aware of the political nuances of the very high-profile case he’s beginning, where a wealthy teenage girl murdered and castrated three surfer boys.
Ronald is someone who has been endowed by society with the right to judge others, which means (maybe) that he needs to be sure to be especially exemplary in his personal behavior. After all, with the case on television and since he’s awaiting confirmation, it’s Ronald who’s being judged by everyonehere. And Ronald is a man, after all, with drives that are not always as totally respectable as he’d like, a fact nicely revealed when he sits paging through a Victoria’s Secret catalog.
The more staid and bohemian sides of this world come together at a dinner party in the middle of the play, where the bored Rockie invites in St. Gerude and his lively guest Miss MM (Lola Glaudini), who amuses the Rogers’ very respectable, if obnoxious and occasionally vulgar, friends with a dance, accompanied by her snake “Othello.”
Let’s sum up to this point — Glaudini has crafted a play that involves discussions ranging from classical music and poetry to the Fourth Amendment and politics, within the context of a play about marriage, social justice, appearances, propriety, and guilt, both the judicial and the emotional kind; and so much more.
There are plenty of provocative and affecting scenes in “The Poison Tree,” but it’s ultimately just too diffuse to gather dramatic momentum. The production feels much longer than it actually is, but cutting alone would probably just make it worse, since the issue isn’t length but focus. At a certain point, one begins to suspect that the play is only going to throw in further intriguing issues and character flaws to ponder, rather than string together what it’s already put forth.
While there is some story resolution, the poetic elements of the play continue to feel self-indulgent instead of meaningful. And despite all the references and allusions that Glaudini crams in, there’s not a single one to a poison tree. That says a lot. This play is a poem that lacks a central metaphor.