In 1978, three years after the Vietnam War ended, Lanford Wilson wrote one of the rare plays that tried to deal with what Americans felt about that trauma, "The 5th of July." Almost 15 years later, the field of such plays has not widened much, but Wilson has made another entry.
"Redwood Curtain" is set on the edge of a California redwood forest where disoriented Vietnam veterans wander forlornly. A young girl who is part-Vietnamese, part-American, an acclaimed classical pianist, lives with her aunt on the edge of the forest. She seeks out these men, hoping to find the one who is her father.
The theme of the search for a father and the grandiose setting (rendered majestically in John Lee Beatty's design) suggest a deeper approach to the issue of Vietnam and American consciousness than Wilson attempted in "The 5th of July."
Alas, "Redwood Curtain" is a far less satisfying play. The only element of it that really works is an extraneous one - the girl's aunt, a wealthy, middle-aged woman whose dizziness provides plenty of laughter but adds little to the major topic (unless we are to take her airheadedness as a statement that, in the long run, Vietnam had no lasting impact on Americans, which seems dubious).
Except for this character - which is played with the breeziest nonchalance by that consummate comedian Debra Monk - the play always seems to be straining the author's resources. The Vietnamese girl never seems to come into focus, and the veteran never gets beyond a type, the grizzly man of the mountains. Neither role offers the actor much chance for development.
Jeff Daniels, unrecognizable in a scraggly beard, gives the vet a sense of menace that has some pathos in it, but most of the play he can do little more than be enigmatic. Sung Yun Cho does not make the girl particularly sympathetic or interesting. Nor does Wilson. The only hint of the character's depth comes from her playing Satie on the piano as the play ends. (Cho's Satie was a bit heavy-handed for my taste but doubless a reflection of the character's angst at that moment.)
Some writers are haunted by the wars they have lived through, and some writers are defined by them. Others don't give a damn.
There can now be little doubt that in his singular way, Lanford Wilson, like others of his playwrighting generation such as David Rabe, has been very quietly haunted by Vietnam.
His latest and clearest sighting of that unreluctant ghost is to be seen in his new play "Redwood Curtain," starring Jeff Daniels, which opened last night at the Brooks Atkinson Theater.
It seems that Wilson sees the Vietnam War as a crisis of identity on perhaps a national, generational and even personal level. Who are we? Why are we? And how did we get that way?
Of course, Wilson, nothing if not subtle, even evasive, does not put such blunt questions so bluntly in "Redwood Curtain." His play is a metaphor about identity - a lenghty, obvious and rather boring metaphor.
Wilson, clearly among our very most gifted playwrights, is at his worst when at his most earnest. And he has never made earnest more important than here in this story of a rootless, homeless Vietnam vet and a young Amerasian girl searching for her biological father.
The play's faults partly stem from the falsity of the writing - there is a tendency towards that glib facetiousness which nowadays too often afflicts serious playwrights with Broadway aspirations - but also, and more woundingly, from the simplistic, paint-by-number theme.
We first see the vet Lyman (Jeff Daniels) in the redwood forest, near Arcata, north California - apparently still a familiar hangout for Nam's homeless walking wounded. Lyman, a formidably shaggy figure, bearded, hair unkempt and manner unmanicured, is seemingly being pursued by a young Amerasian girl, Geri (Sung Yun Cho) who claims to be lost in the woods.
But there is more to it than that. She is lost in her life. And as we discover more and more about her, we can understand why.
She is staying in Arcata with her toughly sophisticated aunt Geneva (Debra Monk) - who once owned a sizable part of this very same redwood forest, but has just, with some reluctance, sold it.
And now we learn not only that Geri is the adopted daughter of very rich parents, but that she is also a world-famous (absolutely world-famous) piano prodigy - and at the end she plays one of Satie's Trois Gymnopedies to prove it.
The point we are to discover is whether or not Lyman is her real father - and the plot not so much thickens as fizzles. These people are not credible. They only exist as phases in a metaphoric equation. And even the equation, which might have justified the play, is far too predictable for abiding interest.
Marshall W. Mason's staging will do, but is bedeviled by casting. Daniels - throwing aside his smoothie movie image for something more hirsute almost down to the shirt - is perfectly fine (or at least reasonably effective) as the commandingly inarticulate and vaguely menacing ex-soldier.
But Monk seems to be in a different play as the aunt (in fairness she has been largely placed there by the playwright) and a surprisingly inept Sung Yun Cho leaves a minimal impression as the disturbed musical genius with an identity problem.
The hero of the evening is the set designer John Lee Beatty, whose sets, and the behavior of those sets, seem to provide the evening with its most overtly dramatic moments.
Finally - simply as an aside - although one can understand how nowadays it may well be necessary to acquire the service of an authentic movie star to make a serious play acceptable to Broadway's jaded and tourist publics, why, having obtained one, go to such pains as to make him totally unrecognizable, both physically and even artistically? Perhaps yet another problem of identity?
Everyone knows America's Vietnam nightmare has finally been laid to rest, buried both by the heroic military victory of Operation Desert Storm and by the Presidential victory of an antiwar protester of the Vietnam era. So why would an American playwright be so rude, let alone unfashionable, as to disinter the rotten corpse again right now?
Lanford Wilson has his reasons, and they may not be the ones you expect, in "Redwood Curtain," his first play since "Burn This" five seasons ago and his most powerful since "Talley's Folly" in 1979. This work, a Circle Repertory Company production at the Brooks Atkinson Theater on Broadway, is set mostly among the towering redwoods in Northern California where untold thousands of Vietnam veterans have disappeared into a feral, ghostly existence, their only contact with civilization an occasional visit to town for an odd job or a meal scarfed from a garbage can. But Mr. Wilson has not written another melodrama in which a crazed Vietnam vet refights the war.
"Redwood Curtain" is instead a state-of-the-nation piece for the early 1990's. Its disturbing subject is the self-destructive American habit of practicing amnesia about all its past nightmares, not just those of Vietnam. Standing in rootless contrast to the trees around them, the people in this play, and by implication their country, cannot find their way out of the woods until they figure out how they got stranded there in the first place. But that is not so easily accomplished in a society where families are fragmented and memories are so short that the casualties of the greedy peacetime 1980's seem nearly as distant as those of the 1960's. "Half the people in America are looking for their fathers," says a character in "Redwood Curtain," and surely she is not referring just to M.I.A.'s.
That Mr. Wilson writes with enormous wit and compassion and a minimum of preaching will come as no surprise to anyone who shares my belief that his first play about a Vietnam veteran, "Fifth of July" (1977), was the wisest and funniest of its generation of stage renderings of the war's fallout at home. Mr. Wilson is also a master storyteller, and "Redwood Curtain" is a real yarn with a satisfying old-fashioned mousetrap of a plot, a search for truth through the twisted paths of unhinged psyches, paternity and scandal, all delivered through three characters in just over 100 intermissionless minutes of progressively more cinematic action.
The plot will not be detailed here, but the situation that propels it is simple enough: Geri (Sung Yun Cho), a 17-year-old Amerasian girl raised by wealthy adoptive parents, follows Lyman (Jeff Daniels), a grizzled, homeless veteran, into the redwood forest, convinced that he either is or can lead her to the American father who abandoned her in infancy in Saigon. The evening's third character is Geri's Aunt Geneva (Debra Monk), to whose palatial Mission-style home on the forest's edge the girl is paying a yearly visit.
"Redwood Curtain" falters only in its opening scene, when Geri and Lyman meet, and meet much too cute. Not only is the scene overloaded with exposition and stiffly staged by the otherwise exemplary director, Marshall W. Mason, but it also asks the impossible from Ms. Cho's heroine. Geri is as smart and articulate as she is rich -- she's a piano prodigy with a Sony record contract, we eventually learn -- and she's also a fantasist with mystical tendencies. The precocity overload would be daunting to even the most experienced young actors, and Ms. Cho does not always escape being cloying. Since Mr. Daniels's Lyman is equally stylized at first, as a secretive, suspicious and monosyllabic hermit, the scene's arch theatricality turns as thick as the forest fog.
But the mist lifts for keeps once the scene shifts to a highway, and Ms. Monk is in the driver's seat. Aunt Geneva, a cultured, uninhibited wisecracker with a Western twang and a dull marriage, is the sort of priceless Wilson role Swoosie Kurtz once played, and Ms. Monk imbues her with perfect sardonic pitch and comic timing. Besides leavening "Redwood Curtain" with jaundiced asides on every subject, Geneva gives the play's action its larger frame. The heiress to a family lumber business that has just been plundered by corporate raiders, she sees her niece's Vietnam obsession as part of a larger story reaching into both buried American history and buried family secrets; her sharp observations inexorably bring crucial offstage characters and events to life.
With Ms. Monk as grounding, the other two actors soon deliver the rending performances "Redwood Curtain" demands. Mr. Daniels, who first came to prominence in "Fifth of July," is almost unrecognizable here with his matted hair, bushy beard and booming voice. As his veteran ceases to seem a freakish troll and stands revealed as an ordinary person who rightly or not has chosen his fate, the actor becomes as delicate as a burly outdoorsman can be, a soul too fragile to withstand the company of people. When Geri finally must find herself as well as her biological parents, Ms. Cho is transformed from an imitation grown-up into a true adult, her face and personality weathered by complex new self-knowledge that lowers the curtain on her glib youth.
As the "Redwood Curtain" acting trio finds its harmony well before the play reaches its denouement, so does Mr. Mason's deft staging. He and his longtime Circle Rep design team -- John Lee Beatty (sets), Laura Crow (costumes), Dennis Parichy (lighting) -- remain Mr. Wilson's essential collaborators, in tune with an idiosyncratic poetic vision that, as always, suggests Chekhov by way of Twain. For this occasion, Mr. Beatty has orchestrated a sweeping set change that gives the evening's finale a visual boost to go with its emotional payoff, and Mr. Parichy has infused such settings as Geneva's music room and a small-town coffee shop with film noir light that heightens the play's mysteries as if they belonged to the rougher California terrain of James M. Cain.
As entertaining as those mysteries and their solution are, "Redwood Curtain" is not, finally, about its plot twists. The play concludes not with some thunderous revelation or reconciliation but with the sound of a piano piece, a Satie "Gymnopedie," and a tranquil tableau of its characters listening to it. Such is Mr. Wilson's achievement in "Redwood Curtain" that he invests the abstract music with a flood of reverberant meaning, using it to sound an affectingly optimistic final chord. For a moment anyway, the thread of melancholy notes seems to tie the solitary lives on stage to one another and bind them at long last to the timeless American landscape that soars above.
Something about the misdirection of a show is revealed when the program biography of a dog (who has, after all, only a handful of barks and a couple of very brief appearances) runs longer than the central character's. Yet that is the case with Lanford Wilson's first play since 1987's "Burn This." Though "Redwood Curtain" has been in development for several years, with productions at three resident theaters, it arrives on Broadway virtually stillborn.
"Redwood Curtain" should go down as a textbook example of how the resident theater circuit, which has proved so effective in fine-tuning the work of August Wilson before arriving on Broadway, can also go seriously awry -- and how commercial theater values can obscure the best intentions of theater artists.
At its best and simplest, "Redwood Curtain" is about a girl's search for her father. Geri (Sung Yun Cho) is an Amerasian, raised in Southern California by wealthy adoptive parents, who has spent much of her life searching for her biological father. She assumes him to be living among a group of vets who, having returned from Vietnam too wasted, too cynical or both to have any hope of re-entering society, wander through the redwood forests of Northern California.
At the play's opening, she has fixed her sights on Lyman (Jeff Daniels), who barks louder than his dog, looks like an Old Testament prophet and is prone to sharp gesticulations that suggest an abundance of electricity between his ears.
He's no match for Geri, a prodigy blessed not only with extraordinary gifts as a pianist -- she has been concertizing worldwide, we are told, since age 12 -- but is possessed of supernatural powers not seen on a Broadway stage since "Carrie," though Geri's are somewhat more benign in character. The only one who knows about them is her Aunt Geneva (Debra Monk), the more-or-less normal one in this trio, a wise-cracking lumber baroness whose family business has been the object of a hostile takeover.
Geri's suspicions about Lyman are well founded, though Wilson gives the outcome an intriguing and even somewhat poignant twist. This will come as no surprise to those who recall Wilson's 1977 "Fifth of July" as one of the outstanding plays to deal with America in the post-Vietnam period.
But the twists in "Redwood Curtain" come too late to redeem a drama that never goes anywhere in exploring either the specific tragedy of children left fatherless by the Vietnam war (both American and Vietnamese) or Wilson's even more elusive quarry, a commentary on our collective search for a path out of the woods.
Covering up the emptiness at the center of the enterprise is John Lee Beatty's set, which alternates the giant redwoods with the music room of Geneva's house, a lovely, earthy, Mission-inspired place.
On the subject of revelations, the turntables turn in the play's final scene as the setting changes from forest to music room -- a coup de theatre -- as razzle-dazzle as the barricade scene in "Les Miserables." Talk about misplaced values!
Marshall W. Mason's direction, sad to report, marks his fourth consecutive misstep, following "The Destiny of Me" (a fine play that survived his mushy staging), and the Broadway disasters "Solitary Confinement" and "The Seagull."
Anyone who saw Daniels' unforgettable solo outing a decade ago at Circle Rep in "Johnny Got His Gun" will hear echoes of that performance in Lyman, and of course Daniels was a key player in "Fifth of July" as well. Here he is so bizarre until the final moments as to be ridiculous.
Cho comes nowhere close to impersonating a serious pianist -- even one in rebellion against her gifts and the requirements of fame. (She is much more convincing as an all-American teenager.)
"Redwood" ends with Geri playing one of Eric Satie's "Gymnopedies," and it's incomprehensible why a director, after such a build-up of a character's pianistic prowess, would expose the audience to so crude a performance as Cho delivers.
The saving grace in all of this is Monk's performance, a by-now trademark mix of wry knowingness and affection. And mention should be made as well of Dennis Parichy's beautiful lighting and Laura Crow's typically accurate costumes.