Written by Sheila Callaghan
Directed by Daniella Topol
A Women’s Project and Cherry Lane Theatre presentation
Through June 6th
At the Julia Miles Theater (424 West 55th St.)
For tickets ($52), call 212-239-6200
Photo by Carol Rosegg
L to R: Ronete Levenson, Elisabeth Waterston, Dana Eskelson, Rob Campbell
On isle of mad dreams, Greece is the word
Drama has ‘romantic, time-fracturing, novelistic feel’
BY JERRY TALLMER
THE isles of Greece! the isles of Greece!
Where burning Sappho loved and sung,
Where grew the arts of war and peace,
Where Delos rose, and Phoebus sprung!
Eternal summer gilds them yet,
But all, except their sun, is set…
— George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788–1824)
In the eternal summer on this particular isle of Greece — we are never told its name — a weathered, emaciated man with red-stained fingers and a mad dream labors to produce from his vineyard a wine beyond all other wines that ever were.
Tomorrow will be the long-awaited first tasting. Triumph; or utter failure.
He is August — not the summer month, but the man himself; an American who has left behind an ultra-radical past in and around Berkeley, California (along with a trail of women he has bedded — beginning back in high school in suburban New Jersey with his nearly 20-year-older, and black, chemistry teacher).
It is now 1980. Ronald Reagan has just wrested the presidency of the United States from Jimmy Carter. And here, on this remote island, an uninvited visitor named Liza — “as in Minnelli,” she volunteers — has dropped in to disturb the peace of August (Rob Campbell) and his beautiful, young, wealthy, pregnant Greek wife Daphne (Elisabeth Waterston).
“Are you still a raging lunatic?” August asks the Liza (Dana Eskelson) who had once, during the act of love, taken a bite out of his thigh. “Well, of course. It’s in my nature,” comes the reply.
The only other soul in (occasional) sight is a teenage girl called Boy who dresses as a boy. He/she helps August in the vineyard. He/she is also drunk most of the time.
“Why do you keep doing that?” Liza asks her onetime lover. “Calling her a him?” “Just a game,” August informs her. But the character called Boy (Ronete Levinson) is to play much more than a game before this business is over.
It is a time-out-of-time set-up and Dionysian setting worthy of E.M. Forster or D.H. Lawrence — and onetime lit major Sheila Callahan makes the most of it; though I think Forster or Lawrence might have picked a less mannered title than “Lascivious Something.”
Increasing the romantic, time-fracturing, novelistic feel of this drama is some intermittent repetition or near-repetition of dialogue — as with a movie that has slipped its cogs. This is cumulatively more effective than you might think.
“These are extreme characters in pressure cookers,” says the young woman who acknowledges that both Liza and Daphne, warm woman, cool woman, “are inside me — isn’t that what every writer does? I’m interested in them for different reasons.”
And how did a playwriting, scriptwriting graduate of Trenton State College (“Now called New Jersey State College, to take the Trenton out of it”) happen to set this particular dramatic pressure cooker on a half-real, half-dreamlike isle of Greece?
“By meeting and marrying a Greek-American man named Sophocles —
“Okay, everybody does that,” she says to a laughing interviewer.
“By marrying a composer named Sophocles and going to meet his family in Greece.”
There, in Greece, on a visit to one of the Grecian isles a half-dozen years ago, she “came upon a vintner; an American with a Greek wife and two little kids, a guy who was doing it” — tending the vines — “all by himself, with only one person somewhere out there in the vineyard helping him. Was he stupid? Crazy? Insane?
“At that same time, back in the United States, [George W.] Bush was getting re-elected president. I wanted to know why was the country so stupid as to re-elect him. As I researched that question, all roads led back to Ronald Reagan.” Callaghan had never seen Reagan in any movie, she says, “except one where he was buddies with a monkey [1951’s ‘Bedtime for Bonzo’].”
Central to that research was Reagan’s autobiography, “Where’s the Rest of Me?” — a title borrowed from his famous rueful legless exclamation in 1942’s “Kings Row.” She also read up on political/academic events in and around storm-tossed Berkeley in the years when Sheila Callaghan, back there in New Jersey, was just learning to walk.
Why so interested in the campus revolutions of the 1960s and 70s?
“Because I grew up so devoid of it.”
Language is a big thing in “Lascivious Something,” not just language but the English language — and the American-English language — seesawing between, for instance, campus agitator August’s furious invective against California Governor Reagan (“We’ll bring that mother-fucking slimy-haired geriatric turkey-necked Bible-thumping actor-cowboy fuckwad down to his knobby arthritic knees”) and that same August’s repetitive Britishy use of the word “indeed” as conversational protective armor.
Indeed, Ms. Callaghan’s terse, clean command of dialogue is nothing to be ashamed of. Though E.M. Forster might not dig it.
It is that command of language that has brought her many a writing gig, like the one that’s about to take her and husband Sophocles and 22-month-old son Cal off to Los Angeles for five months. “How I hate to leave New York,” she says.
If, in “Lascivious Something,” we are looking at burnt-out ex-Berkeleyite August more than one or two ways in concurrent moments, so too do we get refractions, jointly and separately, of Diana, the wife; and Liza, the vivid, unhinged “amour perdu” of the burnt-out revolutionist who would be wine king of the universe — if, if, if…
And do not forget Boy — the girl who dresses like a boy and is addressed as Boy. She/he too, will float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, before the night is out.
She/he too, comes from inside Callaghan — who writes and rewrites all the time, in and out of rehearsals. Just now, she has been finding relevance in the world-threatening collapse of the Greek economy.
“But this is not a drama in the political sense,” she says, Ronald Reagan or no Ronald Reagan, George Bush or no George Bush. “It’s a drama in the romantic sense.”
But be careful. It might bite.