Steve Tesich's "The Speed of Darkness" appears to be a play about Vietnam, about environmentalism, about the American family. Though it touches on all these things, the play is at its best when Tesich gives his sometimes quirky, sometimes dazzling imagination free rein.
At these moments, it soars away from its own limitations, carrying us along with it. The play is so well produced and acted that, even at its messiest, it is a gripping and enthralling evening.
On the surface, "Speed" seems like an Ibsenesque play, moving toward the revelation of some dark misdeed, years before, that haunts the characters ineluctably. When the revelation actually occurs, it falls short of our expectations. So much is made of the fact that the two main characters were in Vietnam together that we assume - admittedly on the basis of no hard evidence - that they must have been involved in some My Lai-like affair.
The revelation is a letdown, but all the way along we have misgivings, because Tesich keeps shifting ground. Unlike a classic well-made play, in which each scene gives us the feeling we are proceeding into a haunted house and doors are slamming shut behind us, "Speed" is more like being on a puddle jumper, which lurches up and down but often affords us spectacular vistas.
Most of these vistas come in the speeches of Tesich's most inspired character, a homeless Vietnam veteran. The arrival of this bedraggled fellow in the midst of a prosperous South Dakota household filled me with dread. I was afraid we were going to be lectured and harangued. But Tesich uses him instead for the poetic whimsy that made last year's "Square One" such a treat.
One of his "harangues," for example, is about why the homeless prefer to take shelter under a statue of Verdi rather than under some untitled piece of modern sculpture, which ends in conjecture about what the universe might be like if God had been a modernist and left His work untitled ("I don't want to be pinned down"). It is the sort of writing that reminds us why we go to the theater in the first place.
Stephen Lang plays the role deliciously. At first, he projects a man whose brains have been fried by plenty of dope, a man still capable of menace. But as he proceeds, Lang gives an intensely American character the aura of some holy fool in a 19th-century Russian novel.
As his Vietnam buddy, who has transformed himself from a garbage hauler to a statewide man of the year, Len Cariou gives a powerhouse performance. He unleashes an emotional fury in the speech of "revelation" that makes it convincing while you're in his spell. (Ultimately, alas, the moment is a piece of metaphoric overload that you dismiss as soon as the lights come up.)
Robert Sean Leonard brings a beguiling poetry to the role of a friend of the family, and Kathryn Erbe is lovely as his girlfriend, especially in her reading of a text by James Agee. Lisa Eichhorn is graceful in the underwritten role of the vet's wife.
Director Robert Falls has caught all the moods of the script beautifully, and he is assisted by Thomas Lynch's evocative set, Merrily Murray-Walsh's generally apt costumes (is it provincial of me to doubt Eichhorn could get so grand an evening gown in Sioux Falls?) and Rob Milburn's subtle music.
At $24 top, "Speed" is an auspicious start for the Broadway Alliance, an attempt to make a haven for American theater rather than British musicals.
The time frame for Steve Tesich's new play, "The Speed of Darkness," which opened last night at the Belasco, is described in the Playbill as "the recent past." But people going to the box office to buy tickets might feel themselves encountering a past rather more distant than recent; for - surprise, surprise - the top ticket price is $24, and other seats are available at $19 and $12.
The price scale is not exactly back to the future, but has been developed under a new cost-cutting arrangement called the Broadway Alliance, which intends to use underutilized theaters.
It could be a new break, if not a new dawn, for the economically ailing Broadway theater. But it will all add up to nothing but a hill of beans if the cut-price product is not of top-flight quality. Shoddy is no bargain. Well, first out, "The Speed of Darkness" doesn't look as if it has been done on the cheap.
As for the play itself, this is almost as old-style Broadway as the prices. Steve Tesich is an elusive playwright - a chameleon of a stylist. Nowadays at least as well known as a screenwriter (he won an Oscar for his screenplay for "Breaking Away") his plays vary in style and manner with an almost surprising consistency.
For his first play on Broadway since his uptown debut with "Division Street" in 1980, Tesich abandons the symbolic-realism which has been perhaps his most constant stylistic trait, and in "The Speed of Darkness" is giving us an old-fashioned cliffhanger, an emotional mystery where souls are bared, motives analyzed and conclusions tidied.
The title seems to refer to the rapidity with which a rich suburban household - the father, a successful contractor, has just been selected as South Dakota's "Man of the Year" - can be engulfed by chaotic tragedy.
As the play's semi-narrator (an ambiguous role) puts it, striking the first warning note of disaster, after we have seen an opening scene of all but sitcom domesticity: "Love was spilled on the floor of this house." And not only love.
Tesich's models here appear to be Arthur Miller (particularly "All My Sons") with more than a touch of dear old Henrik Ibsen ("An Enemy of the People") for good environmental measure.
The story is ignited both by Joe, the contractor (Len Cariou), a war hero from Vietnam, receiving his "Man of the Year" award, and the arrival of his old Vietnam buddy, Lou (Stephen Lang), now disreputable, disturbed, almost deranged, and homeless. And he arrives with some secret that Joe does not want made public.
But secrets are scattered through the play like red herrings in an Agatha Christie fish market, and indeed Tesich succeeds in building and maintaining a considerable degree of suspense and tension. Joe blunders ox-like through the play with something of the inevitability of a Greek tragic hero enmeshed in the tangling webs of his past.
For a time - almost until the end - we watch with interest as Tesich entwines his themes of past follies with carefully extenuating circumstances. But the ending - and not much of the plot can be fairly described - is not a catharsis, but more an enfeebled version of Ibsenite resolve.
Also although the characters are strongly drawn, the writing seems pulled back by an over-contrived slickness that sits ill with the play's realism. For when Joe says, ironically, while waiting for his young teenage daughter to return from a late date, "a mind is a terrible thing to have after midnight," the line is cute but proves quite inappropriate to Tesich's tragic hero.
As the Vietnam vets fighting their individual demons, the bull-like Cariou and the mangily lynx-like Lang are amazing. Both are giving the kind of performances that once made Broadway the envy of world theater.
Cariou (incidentally, how wonderful he would be in Miller!) roars with suppressed agony, while Lang, jokey and likeable yet disturbingly sinister, is unforgettable as a figure from an inconvenient past. The others, particularly Lisa Eichorn as a wife with her own past, are also effective.
So is "The Speed of Darkness" a bargain? Well, it firmly holds the attention, is swiftly staged by Robert Falls, with an attractively Spartan set by Thomas Lynch, and acted to a fare-thee-well by a faultless cast.
And, yes, the price is right.
"The Speed of Darkness," Steve Tesich's new play, is only a few minutes old when a character announces that blood will eventually be spilled on the living-room carpet of the all-American home where it takes place. By the time the final curtain falls more than two hours later, blood has indeed been spilled, and so have guts, shameful secrets and a heap of dirt that stands for the stain on a family and a nation. That's the kind of play Mr. Tesich has written: one that tells you what it is going to do and then does it, messily perhaps, but with a vengeance and, once it finally gets going, with an inexorable grip.
It is also the kind of defiantly old-fashioned drama, big-boned, unsubtle and aflame with passion, that few writers as high-minded as Mr. Tesich, best known as the author of the film "Breaking Away," would be caught dead writing anymore. There could be no more perfect setting for it than the Belasco Theater, a glorious old Broadway house that has known its own darkness more often than not in recent decades. David Belasco, the impresario and dramatist who built the place in 1907, believed in thunderous emotions, and his theater, an almost ecclesiastical cavern glinting with mosaics of colored glass, seems designed to showcase them. In "The Speed of Darkness," Mr. Tesich's best scenes mesh with some thrilling acting to turn back the Belasco's clock.
The evening's cast is headed by Len Cariou and Stephen Lang, as Vietnam soul mates whose paths cross again 20 years after they left the service. Mr. Cariou is Joe -- war hero Joe, self-made Joe, Middle American Joe, the archetypal father who runs a construction business and presides over the Naugahyde-upholstered South Dakota household at hand. Mr. Lang is Lou, the buddy he long ago rescued, and these days a homeless man with moth-eaten clothing, lice-infested hair and a gift for street-corner philosophizing. Lou devotes his energies to following a copy of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial -- a traveling "son of wall" -- that has found its way to Sioux Falls as part of a cross-country tour. He soon settles in with Joe, Joe's wife (Lisa Eichhorn) and their high-school senior daughter (Kathryn Erbe) as an uninvited if not entirely unwelcome guest.
To say more about the story of "The Speed of Darkness" would be to spoil one of its prime assets, for Mr. Tesich unabashedly believes in narrative. He also has faith in other familiar verities of traditional American dramaturgy. The fifth member of the cast, that sensitive young actor Robert Sean Leonard, plays a neighborhood boy who doubles as an unofficial Greek chorus, promising the audience a tragedy and sometimes sounding like the lawyer who portentously narrates Arthur Miller's "View From the Bridge." Mr. Tesich also gives "The Speed of Darkness" a buried crime out of Mr. Miller's "All My Sons" and a symbolic, imaginary baby out of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" or more recently Sam Shepard's "Buried Child." Joe's family sometimes behaves like the Vietnam-era brood of David Rabe's "Sticks and Bones," and is it my imagination that Mr. Cariou is starting to look like Lee J. Cobb?
Sure, there's a paint-by-numbers quality to some of this, and no, Mr. Tesich does not deliver a Great American Tragedy by the final scene -- just a very chewy climactic soliloquy for Mr. Cariou that substitutes an excess of melodramatic revelations for the one deep truth that might raise characters and audience alike to higher ground. But speaking as someone who has found Mr. Tesich's more recent plays ("Division Street," "Square One") and screenplays ("The World According to Garp," "Four Friends") either precious or pretentious, I was almost always captivated by his heartfelt writing here, despite his sometimes open manipulation of his character's strings and the slow-motion exposition that cripples the first half or so of the first act.
Many of the best lines belong to Mr. Lang, a fascinating actor who specializes in psychos ("A Few Good Men," the coming film "The Hard Way") but here keeps us guessing whether Lou is the craziest or wisest person on stage, or both. With his military stature, feral eyes and weathered face, he is, as always, a mesmerizing figure, and his diction, as classically polished as his body and clothes are filthy, adds to his unsettling presence. He could not have a better opportunity to show off his range than "The Speed of Darkness." Mr. Lang is brilliant in his delivery of Mr. Tesich's funniest speech -- a Robin Williams-esque spiel about the relative merits of pre- and post-modern public statuary to the urban homeless -- and he gives a searing account of the play's most moving monologue, in which Lou recounts his arrest for trying to scratch his name with a can opener into the Washington wall of the dead.
Lou's point is that the survivors of the Vietnam War deserve a memorial, too, because many of them, like him, survived in name only and are still what he calls M.I.A., or Missing in America. ("We weren't saved. We were rescued," is how Joe puts his own emergence alive from battle.) Mr. Tesich's larger theme is that the entire country must break through the wall it has erected around an unhappy chapter in its history if it is to be free of its guilt. Along with the wall, the evening's other principal metaphor is garbage, for it is in garbage removal that Joe got his postwar start in civilian life, taking his neighbors' "trash and filth and waste" and burying it "somewhere, anywhere, out of sight." In the playwright's view, that waste, however ugly and poisonous, must be brought from the darkness into the light if it is at last to be understood and overcome.
Mr. Tesich has not so successfully worked out his play at the marital level, and Joe's wife, well played by Ms. Eichhorn in apparent emulation of Dianne Wiest, never adds up. Though it still lacks a wholly satisfying ending, "The Speed of Darkness" has otherwise been profitably shorn of much, if not all, of its overwriting since its premiere almost two years ago at the Goodman Theater in Chicago. Then as now the firm director is the Goodman's artistic leader, Robert Falls, and if he shares responsibility for the evening's early leaden gait (and the unfortunate "Twilight Zone" music accompanying it), he also presumably deserves credit for the inspired recasting. (Only Mr. Lang is a holdover from the Chicago company.) In Ms. Erbe, a beautiful and poised young actress who makes Joe's daughter an intelligent girl-woman with a rapidly evolving, transparently exposed psyche, he may have made a major discovery.
For Mr. Cariou, "The Speed of Darkness" may be the most challenging assignment since "Sweeney Todd," and he acts his heart out in a role that variously calls for Chamber of Commerce boorishness, belligerent drunkenness, paternal tenderness and finally the promised self-exorcism in which he spews out Joe's own garbage of a lifetime. By then, the V-shaped back wall of Thomas Lynch's domestic set seems to have blackened into another, hellish image of the war memorial, a jolting go-for-broke gesture that typifies a drama intent on retrieving the theater's past no less than the trauma of Vietnam.