Early in Jonathan Tolins' "The Twilight of the Golds," David Gold, a young gay man who has been unsuccessful at getting his family to share his love for Wagner's "Ring," declares, "When art is at its most outrageous, when it cannot be believed, that's when it most resembles life."
This is a promising premise for a play that tries to create parallels between Wagner's mythical world and a middle-class Jewish family, both careening toward self-destruction. Tolins, however, rarely follows his own advice.
He begins imaginatively by breaking through a living room wall to reveal a Wagnerian landscape lying just beyond it, but little of what then happens has the scope to make the parallel convincing.
At this point I must confess I'm not a "Ring" fan. The reason it is dramatically unsatisfying (note, I said dramatically, not musically) is that its characters always succumb to fate. Even the most powerful god, Wotan, is helpless before ineluctable destiny. Wagner's tortuous plot is a kind of cosmic foreshadowing of the line, "I was only obeying orders."
The Golds, on the other hand, have free will. But the choices they make, as Tolins has drawn them, are invariably dumb ones. Contempt for one's middle-class origins is at the heart of much recent art, but to make effective drama out of this hostility, one must at least depict the enemy fairly. To make the Golds tiresome vulgarians is not really fair or accurate. Upwardly mobile Jews like the Golds have always been involved in culture - why else would the garment industry have clustered around the Old Met?
The play hinges on a scientific discovery that makes it possible to determine the sexual orientation of a child during early pregnancy. When Suzanne discovers her unborn son is gay, she and her dull husband contemplate abortion.
If there were any real question about the decision, "Twilight" might have been an interesting play. As it is, the outcome is all too predictable. The real parallel between the gods and the Golds is that they embrace extinction too willingly. (Even this, as Jewish history indicates, is unfair to the Golds.)
The play's best moments - apart from its sharp humor - are monologues Tolins gives each character. His writing is more assured when the Golds address the audience directly than in their often pat exchanges with one another.
Because the characters are written in so meanspirited a fashion, virtually nothing the actors can do gives them much breadth. The most appealing, of course, is David, and though Raphael Sbarge has an openness and sweetness that makes him sympathetic, he has an annoying set of accents that pop up too often. Jennifer Grey makes Suzanne a plausible, pouty Jewish princess, but she cannot rise above the pettiness of the writing even to suggest the deep affection she once had for her brother.
Judith Scarpone and David Groh are effective as the parents; Michael Spound strong as the dreary husband.
The earthbound nature of the project is reflected even in John Iacovelli's set designs, which capture middle-class settings smoothly but fail to suggest the magic of the Wagnerian world beyond.
Have you noticed how much moral issues seem to depend on other people's morality and your own stand on those very same moral issues? Of course, immorality is something that normally only happens to other people. People without our standards.
Plays have never been good arenas in which to ventilate moral problems - such weighty matters being more appropriate to Phil Donahue than Bill Shakespeare. Plays are best confined to character, motive and incident, not to mention poetry - with moral judgments, when appropriate, left to the observer, as they are in life.
Jonathan Tolins, who is offering a very simplistic, mildly homophobic, conundrum plays "The Twilight of the Golds," which opened at the Booth Theater last night, would like to persuade us otherwise.
Tolins has a problem - one of those "what would you do if" questions - that he is anxious, even desperate, to pass on to us.
Suzanne Gold-Stein (Jennifer Grey) is pregnant. Her husband (Michael Spound), a doctor (as in medicine) and a bio-technologist, specializing in the genetic structure of DNA, to boot, is delighted.
The entire Gold family - her father and mother (David Groh and Judith Scarpone) and her gay brother David (Raphael Sbarge), a young opera queen and set designer, who works at the Met and talks mischieviously about Wagner and Appia - is also delighted.
Until...(the playwright now takes us on a sci-fi trip into the not-quite-known zone, for the play is based on what is not yet accepted science)...it is discovered through amniocentesis that because of the genetic constitution of the male fetus' DNA, it is 90 percent certain that the boy will "turn out like David." Oops!
There is much talk in the play of hereditary, of Nazi breeding eugenics (these it seem even the play accepts as bad), and the "woman's right to choose." Should Suzanne have an abortion or not? As her husband says so wryly: "We'd have a lot of nature to nurture against."
Of course, who knows the extent to which science might, in the near future, change our commonplace uncertainties, and allow man to play, or at least understudy, God.
And I suppose there are parents who would regard the strong possibility of parenting a homosexual child as good and be proper grounds for abortion - most would-be parents are not so finicky, and are prepared to take and love what they have created.
Am I taking up a haughty moral ground? I don't mean to. Because I am not homophobic doesn't mean that people who are might not face problems here. But even if the child were suffering from hemophilia - or whatever! name it - I would need an awful lot of good writing to give me any interest in or sympathy for these puppets or their situation.
Tolins' people - continually dropping media names, and approaching the proscenium arch for tear-glinted, soliloquy-style communions with the audience - are universally as unlikeable as they are unlikely.
And the author trying - with the help of elaborate but rather ugly scenery - to point up similarities between his domestic sit-trag with Wagner's "Ring" proves pretentious and ludicrous.
Although it helps but little, Arvin Brown's direction is fine - it even keeps the scenery out of the way of the actors - and the actors themselves show every sign of sincerity. At times rather too obviously. But then, that's show business, as they may say on "Donahue."
"The Twilight of the Golds," Jonathan Tolins's calculatingly topical play, which opened at the Booth Theater last night, would like us to consider a multitude of big questions: eugenics, the true breadth of tolerance among self-defined liberals and the limits of family love. But the principal moral to be gleaned from it is of a different order altogether: If you're writing a small, facile comic melodrama -- which, in spite of its painfully lofty ambitions, is all this play is at best -- it's definitely not a good idea to drag in Wagner's "Ring" cycle as your central point of reference.
Weighted with this cultural baggage, what might otherwise have seemed merely slight becomes embarrassingly infinitesimal. And in the wake of similarly themed, more successfully ambitious plays, like "Pterodactyls" (let alone "Angels in America"), it shrinks all the more.
The play, directed by Arvin Brown, is framed by the recollections of David Gold, a gay set designer whose pregnant sister, Suzanne, learns through genetic testing (a fiction, since no such test yet exists) that the child she is carrying will probably also be born gay. The ensuing debate over whether she should have an abortion rips her family apart, and as an opera fanatic, David casts the struggle in the heroic terms of Wagner's masterpiece.
Accordingly, the walls of Suzanne's Manhattan apartment (designed by John Iacovelli) recede to reveal a Valhalla-like landscape, all empyreal sky and craggy mountains; Wagner's apotheosizing music swells, and David keeps annotating each new plot turn with increasingly strained Wagnerian parallels. And all the while, the play's five characters -- alternating between cute comic exchanges and arguments possessing all the heat and spontaneity of a high school debate -- seem to grow smaller and smaller and smaller.
The juxtaposition of ordinary lives undone by extraordinary circumstances and outsize musical fantasies can, in theory, be effective. (Think of the television version of Dennis Potter's "Pennies From Heaven.") But Mr. Tolins uses the device less to mark contrasts than correspondences. And because his characters, who also include Suzanne's husband and parents, seem so relentlessly shallow and predictable, the correspondences never adhere. Indeed, they are intrusively trivializing.
In creating his characters, Mr. Tolins has used a simplistic shorthand of identifying details that keep rotating through the play like mechanical ducks in a carnival shooting gallery: Suzanne's inability to deal with tough, life-changing issues is symbolized by her repeated references to the way she froze when she took her S.A.T.'s. The inability of David's family to accept his homosexuality is shown in the way they automatically shut down whenever he mentions his boyfriend.
The comic dialogue, in particular, seems canned and stale, often relying, all too appropriately, on references to television sitcoms and brand names to garner easy laughs. And even in the midst of passionate, soul-searching conversation, a hoary joke is likely to pop in like a prankster at a funeral. When David, who has recently learned of Suzanne's dilemma from his mother, wants to know if she would have aborted him under similar circumstances, he says, "The question is hypothetical." Referring to a gland believed to control sexual orientation, his mother answers, "The hypothalamus is the question."
For the play to have any emotional clout, one must believe in the strength of the Golds' familial bonds. But because the brand of stereotypical Jewish humor that defines their encounters seems far more imposed than organic, the bridge of sympathy between actors and audience can never be fully crossed.
The play's dramatic momentum, which is always fairly slack, is slowed even more by the series of monologues delivered by each of its characters. They are meant to obliquely illuminate larger issues with deceptively commonplace observations, but they often seem more like stand-up routines on an amateur comedy night. Suzanne, offering another example of her mauvaise foi, talks about her humiliating experience with a dating service. Her father wistfully recalls that when he was growing up it was the children, not the parents, who were the disappointments. And the mother tells the audience that we are suffering from a surfeit of information.
Ultimately, "Twilight" offends not because of its subject matter but through the uneasy mixture of flippancy and self-righteousness with which that subject is treated. The play's melodramatically ironic conclusion -- in which poetic justice is dealt resoundingly to those who would tinker with nature -- is a truly objectionable liberal version of a Christian fundamentalist's theory of divine nemesis.
As the Jewish princess Suzanne, Jennifer Grey, who has been a charming actress on screen, provides what can best be described as a performance in miniature. Her range of inflections and gestures is tiny, and in grief she seems merely robotic. As her husband, Rob, a research scientist who initiates the prenatal test, Michael Spound is burdened with the play's medical exposition, which he delivers like an instructor in a military training film.
David Groh and Judith Scarpone, as the parents, and Raphael Sbarge, who plays David with a perplexing hint of an Irish brogue, all struggle doggedly to bring some heartfelt emotions to the proceedings. There are even scenes in which all of them actually appear to be crying.
But if these valiant actors are able to believe in the genuine grief their characters are undergoing, any audience for "Twilight" will have a much harder time doing so. This is one of those unfortunate instances in which one feels sorry for the actors, not the characters. The only time I experienced a twinge of empathy for one of the latter was when Suzanne, listening to her brother's ongoing recitation of the plot of "The Ring," looked impatiently at her watch.
The "Twilight of the Golds" ought to have a run on Broadway, not because it's great -- it's not -- or because it promises unforgettable acting in choice roles -- it doesn't. This play by newcomer Jonathan Tolins is a trashy, manipulative, sentimental morality tale that could do for the stage what "Indecent Proposal" did in the movies: Provoke arguments about an issue that goes right to the heart of what binds families together or rips them apart.
Here's the setup: Rob Stein (Michael Spound) is a doctor involved in biotech research whose company has developed sophisticated chromosome analysis that can be performed very early in pregnancy. When his wife, Suzanne (Jennifer Grey), becomes pregnant, she agrees to undergo the experimental testing. The results show 10 fingers, 10 toes -- and a 90% likelihood that the male baby will be gay. What do they do? What, the play asks by extension, would you or I do?
Suzanne's gay brother David (Raphael Sbarge), an underling in set design at the Metropolitan Opera, is shocked that there's even a question.
Rob, along with Suzanne's very involved parents, Phyllis (Judith Scarpone) and Walter (David Groh), are into a heavy passive-aggressive thing, making it clear they want her to have an abortion without ever actually coming out and saying so; after all, look how tough it's been to have David in the family.
The outcome devastates everyone. But first David gets to deliver several winningly tacky monologues drawing parallels between their predicament and the story of Richard Wagner's "Ring" trilogy, complete with musical excerpts.
Merged with this path to tragedy is a traditional matinee comedy with lots of set pieces and one-liners. "I must have dressed you funny," Phyllis tells David, drawing a big laugh that grows bigger when she adds, "If only I hadn't taken your temperature that way."
"Twilight" flaunts enough Jewish stereotypes to offend anyone who stops laughing long enough to listen. Worst is Suzanne, a vacant, indecisive, gift-mongering cipher typed as a Jewish American Princess straight out of "Goodbye, Columbus" (which is mentioned, lest anyone miss the point). Grey is so good at conveying those qualities that it's hard to know whether Suzanne is supposed to be utterly unlikable or the actress hasn't found a route into Suzanne's soul. Either way, the result is a standoff between actress and character.
The rest of the acting, with the exception of Sbarge, is as stock as the writing, all posture and no grace. Sbarge, as likely a member of this family as Bill Cosby, nevertheless brings an ingratiating naturalness to the role of David.
The technical elements are uniformly mediocre, and special mention should be made of the extremely ugly wardrobe Jeanne Button has provided Grey, who also has entirely too much going on with her hair, highlights-wise.
But truthfully, none of this should matter. Arvin Brown has staged "Twilight of the Golds" exactly as it ought to be staged, with its consternation triple-underlined and its jokes italicized. As with "Indecent Proposal," no one will come out of this play remembering much more than the scary question at its center. In a just world, that would be enough to get 'em lining up at the box office.