“Waste Land”: a poem’s birth, a marriage’s death

Most of us didn’t spend a whole spring of lovely mornings stumbling and struggling through T.S. Eliot’s massive poem, The Waste Land.  (Those of us in Ms. MacLeish’s senior English class did.) So for most of us, a play about Eliot’s life while he wrote the history-making ode might seem a bit daunting, with thin rewards likely at journey’s end.

Nonetheless, playwright Don Nigro and the Collaborative Artists Ensemble take on the challenge, giving his Waste Land its world premiere here in LA, at the recently renovated studio/stage.
The poem — despite the immense difficulties it  presented to its early 20th-century readers — has become a classic of modern literature. The play faithfully rides its coattails, full of quotations and Easter eggs, but can hardly expect a similar fate.

Meg Wallace, JJ Smith, John Ogden, Bartholomeus De Meirsman

Nigro is prolific, at 400 plays and counting, and one of the most produced living playwrights. As in racing, however, you gain speed by sacrificing weight. Though Nigro’s well-read and witty, his play does not reach the depth and resonance of its subject.

It needs the firm editing Tom Eliot got from fellow poet Ezra Pound. And the rewriting Pound demanded. (Eliot dedicated The Waste Land to him, saying, “He made it better.”) Nigro raises meaty issues — love, war, protest, classism, mental illness, the role of art in modern society — but tends to brush by them, rather than digging in. This may be in part because there are so many lines to get through (the piece runs over two hours); it may also reflect the way Eliot’s fashionable London friends liked to reach for bon mots rather than  serious thinking.

In place of depth, we get repetition. Characters make the same point several times over, and whole scenes often sound as if they’re being repeated. But the matter at hand is important, and we want to work our way below the surface, not keep skating on it (however cleverly).

Vivienne, Eliot’s wife and arguably the play’s main character, suffers most from this. Slipping into mental illness, she ends up in a “home”; yet her whole psychological life seems to have begun the moment she met Tom. Speech after speech repeats her distress, but adds nothing to our sense of who she was before, what made her so vulnerable to this situation, and who she is or might be when she’s not being driven mad by severe neglect.

Ironically, Tom, who pushes neurotic repression as far as it can go (and does at one point seek treatment), is more accessible. This is largely because we see him repeatedly dodge disclosing anything — and because we meet his mother, a terrifying American matron.

If the two major characters are underexplored, the secondary ones are nearly cartoonish. For all the time Ezra Pound spends onstage,  we only know that he writes poetry, loves art and swearing, and is a goofball. Bertrand Russell, the famed philosopher, mathematician, and anti-war activist, is a bundle of mannerisms — amusing, but not very human. Ditto James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Gertrude Stein. We get to know the most about Mr. Jaynes, a retired detective who hangs about the house, because Vivienne asks about him — and he answers. Who were these people? Who are they when they’re not onstage? Nigro seems not to care, or not to have held onto the play long enough to notice what’s missing.

As they say in the restaurant business, you can’t fix a dish between the kitchen and the table. Given this half-baked cake, the players do what they can. But they’re hamstrung by the playwright’s unfinished work — and by some of their own limitations.

Several actors do rise above the script. Rich Brunner infuses James Joyce with a wise melancholy, and doesn’t breeze past Joyce’s loss of his daughter to schizophrenia; we feel him as a person, and relax when he’s onstage. Deborah Cresswell does similarly fine work making Gertrude Stein and Mother Eliot believable, endowing them with depth beyond the lines (though Stein is given some nice witticisms and absurdities). Georgan George lets us feel Virginia Woolf’s tenuous, often confused encounter with common reality, hinting at the courage behind her quizzical humor. And John Ogden uses his tools — voice, accent, posture, pace — to create a very clear etching of Bertie Russell, and a more rounded portrait of Mr. Jaynes.

In the major roles, Bartholomeus De Meirsman commits ebullient energy to the role of Ezra Pound (he’s one of the few actors who can wheel a bicycle onto and off of a tiny stage with elan). But the part’s not only underwritten, it ‘s also insufficiently spoken. De Meirsman can be clarion clear, and when he takes the time to be so, his Pound is engaging and wry; however,  he rushes a good half of his lines, making us lose most of a character we urgently want to know.

As Tom Eliot, JJ Smith faces a massive challenge: To communicate to us the thoughts, feelings, and inner life of a person who is at great pains not to communicate them to anyone, not even his wife. That Smith does so is an impressive feat: Using stillness, and a tightly closed body, he forces us again and again to read what the muscles in his face involuntarily reveal. It’s an acting coup, fully delivering the one  character who should be underwritten.

Meg Wallace has an equally imposing task. Vivienne is onstage more than anyone else, has more lines than anyone else, and yet we can’t rely on the words to get to know her very well. It’s up to the actor. Wallace is an intelligent and attractive actor, someone we want to connect with; but alas, Vivienne reaches her emotional peak early and keeps hitting that note over and over. (This is more a directing than an acting fault.) Overfast delivery and slumped, beseeching posture serve well to portray Vivienne at her nadir — but they’re present throughout, making us unable to feel what draws Tom to her so strongly, or keeps him there. (To be fair, these are mysteries to which Nigro leaves few clues in the text).

I suspect that in their decade together (this is Collaborative Artists’ 11th season), the company may have fallen into some bad habits, which they may excuse in one another. Director Steve Jarrard, while making some strong choices, allows lapses that also marred the company’s prior show (Afterlife: A Ghost Story, reviewed last October).

One is letting actors face each other while talking, excluding the audience; this costs us much of Ezra Pound. Another is not demanding more work on vocal production and pacing. These are long, hard speeches to learn, but the work is wasted if we can’t understand them. Finally, I wish Jarrard had felt free to discuss rewriting, or editing — or at least trimming — some of the text with the author. It’s a tough talk to have, especially with a world premiere offered as a gift, but it will have to be done someday if this play is to survive.

And I do hope Waste Land survives. It’s a story that demands telling, especially now that gender, sexuality, and mental illness are hot on the table. Michael Hastings’ 1985 play, Tom and Viv, and Carole Seymour-Jones’ 2002 biography, Painted Shadow, have started the process — but Vivienne still hasn’t had her innings. (I admit, I also want others to be tempted into reading Tom’s masterful poem; it deserves its reputation.)

For Collaborative Artists Ensemble, I wish not only survival but thriving. They consistently choose interesting material that challenges them, and challenges us; we need that more than we need another re-staged popular musical. The plucky troupe’s dedication shows in their managing to exist without an endowment, crowd funding, or mayonnaise jars at the door.
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Waste Land, by Don Nigro, directed by Steve Jarrard.
Presented by the Collaborative Artists Ensemble, at studio/stage, 520 N. Western Ave., LA 90004.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 7:00,
through May 6.

Tickets: <www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3321593>