Two exceedingly pleasing performances from familiar faces make the world premiere of “Defiled” a certain commercial success for the Geffen Playhouse. Peter Falk and Jason Alexander are so very beguiling to watch, in fact, that for much of the evening, they manage to distract us from the wispy nature of Lee Kalcheim’s flickeringly thoughtful but dramatically amorphous play about society’s obsession with technology, or, in a character’s words, “the loss of the grandeur of man.” This is a timely and perfectly worthy issue for a debate play; the biggest problem, though, is that Kalcheim leaves out the debate.
As “Defiled” opens, Harry Mendelssohn (Alexander) is finishing up some last-minute preparations. He’s already tied dynamite to the glorious columns of his beloved library, rigged a device to trigger the explosives, and left behind a note with his much-despised former employer explaining his very straightforward motivation and intent: “Since you have seen fit to ignore my request that the card files stay, I will blow up the entire library.”
Falk plays Brian Dickey, a harried policeman — not exactly a stretch for the “Columbo” star, but that’s OK — who is sent in to keep the peace, listening to Harry’s explanation for his extreme actions, and doing all he can to talk him out of it, often by distracting him with stories of Dickey’s own unpredictable wife.
From the very start, Kalcheim makes the audience want to side with Harry against the offstage villain who wishes to cart away the catalog cards and rely solely on the impersonal computers. Harry’s not your typical terrorist (unlike Ted Kaczynski, he wants to avoid harming people); he’s a bookish nerd who’s taken all he can take of so-called progress, which isn’t progress at all. Blinking with nervous anxiety, finding condescending amusement even in this dire situation, Harry believes passionately in the justness of his cause, and Alexander succeeds in crafting a character who’s likable in his obnoxiousness — again, not exactly an acting stretch for the man who played George Costanza, but that’s OK, too.
In the most effective monologue of the play, Harry goes through the entire history of libraries, from before the printing press to the sublime accomplishment of Melville Dewey and his decimal system, and when he concludes, it’s impossible not to wish for him to emerge victorious over the impending hegemony of the computer age. Not so much because he convinces us with his arguments, but because of the depth of his feeling. Save the cards, for Harry’s sake.
To Kalcheim’s credit, he avoids the most common trap of the issue-oriented talkfest: the tendency to have characters represent ideas and little more. The playwright throws in enough character details about Harry, from depressed sister to his failed engagement to his comforting collie, to keep the character from being just a mouthpiece for a point of view.
And, similarly, Falk’s Dickey is a fully dimensional character who admits that he really doesn’t care that much about whether the cards stay or go — he just wants to go home, eat dinner, work on a fishing fly and watch TV. Sure, Falk can play the frowzy good guy like nobody else — spewing off-handed jokes with polished aplomb — but there’s a glaring structural weakness here. Dickey doesn’t so much argue with Harry as simply try to convince him that this is not really the way to go about it. After all, if he blows up the library, the cards will be gone as well as the books and the historical building. Harry’s counter, that he can’t bear to watch the library suffer a slow but inevitable death, is never really convincing. Kalcheim never leads up to a point where the two characters truly lock horns, which should, in fact, represent the climax.
Given that the play comes off feeling like an overblown sketch — there’s no intermission, and the other actors in the play are heard over the radio but never seen — director Barnet Kellman varies the tone enough to avoid tedium, although the production does flirt with that in the middle. But while Kellman keeps up a good pace, he doesn’t make very effective use of the wonderful, elaborate set from D. Martyn Bookwalter, which creatively incorporates the Playhouse’s architecture and captures the grandness of the theme in a way the dialogue, almost solely conducted on a two-dimensional plane, rarely does.
Ultimately, the play never generates enough intensity to be emotionally involving or suspenseful, nor is it clever enough to elicit more than a chuckle here and there. It’s sort of a light-hearted drama — a few ideas, a few jokes, and a couple of very likable, talented performers.