Review: ‘Cedars,’ a work-in-progress at Berkshire Theatre Festival
By Erik Tarloff
Directed by Keira Naughton
“Marriage is a working farm, not a petting zoo.”
Summing up lives without boxing them and tying them closed with sturdy string is a goal we all seem to have. We want the answers but we don’t want to rid ourselves of them once we have them. It is as though the need to confront the truth head-on is what compels us. It certainly seems to be the thing that motivates Gabe, the solo on-stage character in Erik Tarloff’s play “Cedars” now on the main stage at the Berkshire Theatre Group’s Stockbridge Festival theater.
Truth in all its ugliness is what we have echoing off the walls in James Naughton’s voice. Truths, that is, not truth. Echoes of truths, not the truths themselves, for all we have is Gabe’s narration of events, his take on the things in his life that make and break him. This is a monodrama in one act. I always have difficulty believing that one man narrating his life is a play, but this one comes in very close indeed.
Gabe is not alone on Hugh Landwehr’s evocative set, a private room at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. His father is in the bed, comatose but viable, absorbing every word spoken to him by his son. At least we are told he is there. We are told that time passes between each of the five scenes in the play. We are told that there is no change, that Papa could wake up at any time and that he might well have heard every word spoken to him.
Gabe has never felt any approval from his dad. In spite of a successful marriage, children, looking after his mother, having a successful career as a lawyer, Gabe has not managed to get his father to admit that he fathered a son worthy of respect or admiration. Of course, Gabe’s wife has left him for a younger man, his son is marginally borderline gay, his sister is a tramp and his mother has a degenerative ailment which causes a fiscally dangerous rift between her and her son. Maybe Papa is right in withholding that longed-for approval that Gabe so cherishes and wishes for whenever he sees his father. Maybe it is Gabe who suffers in the wrong.
This play asks a great many questions, but the answers are never forthcoming for there is but one voice in this play, Gabe’s voice. The problem with most monodramas runs rampant through this one: all responses are sketchy reportage at best.
The author is a highly respected author of television sit-com shows, film scripts, novels and two other plays. He has been a speech writer for some of the most extraordinary political figures of our time. His articles adorn the pages of The Paris Review, Vogue, and The New York Times, among many others. His ear for dialogue is excellent — we can hear that in the one-sided conversations between Gabe and everyone else he cares to talk about in his monologues.
This play just suffers from the one-sided view of the main character’s life. It would be much improved if wife, mother, son, sister — even dad — the nurses and the girlfriends could become a part of the picture and not just in our imaginations. With the pacing of the play we daren’t take the moment to draw the picture and imagine these other characters, for we might miss an important word or phrase, a clue to the true truths hidden within the text of the play.
Keira Naughton has done a fine job staging the piece. There isn’t a moment or a movement that feels out of place here. She has captured the nuance of relationship with a dead body whose mind may be alive but is not responsive. She has definitely shaped the pictures we see and the pace at which we discover things, the water bottle, the necktie, the nurses outside the hospital room’s door, never seen or heard, but noticed. This is an excellent example of what her talent, and her talented family, can achieve.
Likewise her father, James Naughton, plays Gabe for the honesty in the words of the play. He is a one-note actor in a one-note role and in spite of himself and the character he is a convincing combination of words and body. The ease with which he presents himself to his father (and to his audience) goes a long way in making Gabe a real person, not a mere caricature of a man in trouble. He shows his dispassionate self through the character and in doing so he brings the character a reality that the words don’t always provide. Gabe, seen through the eyes and heart of Naughton, is a real man, worthy of the approval he vainly seeks. One of Naughton’s best performances since “City of Angels,” it is just as gimmicky a presentation, though a very different one, and he leaves behind a strong impression of a man who can never be completely satisfied with himself.
This is the best production I can imagine of Erik Tarloff’s play in its current form. This is a world premiere and there is a great deal more that could be done with the play. For now, though, this is the version we have available and it is never dull or uninteresting which is saying a lot. Could it be a better play? I think so. Will it suffice as is? For now. Who knows what the future may bring.
Cedars plays on the Fitzpatrick Main Stage at the Berkshire Theatre Group’s Stockbridge campus, located at 83 East Main Street, Stockbridge, Mass., through August 9. For information or tickets call the box office at 413-997-4444 or obtain tickets and schedules of all Berkshire Theatre Group productions from the Berkshire Edge calendar.