“Who are Americans to lecture us about fear?” asks a victim of terrorism, quoted in a New York Times article, reacting to a school bus bombing in an unnamed foreign country. The Times circulates in a row of seats in a Metro-North car as the train speeds from Grand Central Terminal to New Haven. The characters read to themselves about the horrors, and we hear fragments of the report in a voice-over. The words cut through the din of cell phone chatter and the insipid, daily banter, straight to the jugular: “Your children are not safe.”
Yet Donald Margulies’ world premiere one-act, “Last Tuesday” — the shorter of the two plays in the Long Wharf Theatre’s double-bill production, “Two Days” — does not mean to discredit America’s post-9/11 culture of fear with this question. If anything, both of Margulies’ one-acts suggest that Americans suppress more debilitating fear than perhaps they should. With “Two Days,” Margulies has written a response to the Times quotation without resorting to lecture. It is an exquisitely well-crafted evening of theater, is a meditation on, sometimes a direct exhibition of, a fear that knows no national borders: parents’ concern for their children’s lives.
The production makes for a gloomy night out, but “Last Tuesday” begins with typical Margulies wit. The characters live in denial of any threat to their loved ones as they playfully argue about rotisserie chicken, high school sports and the Long Wharf Theatre. Then the play switches to a darker track.
He appears silently at the back of the midnight blue stage, dressed in heavy, torn clothing and caked with powdery dirt and dried blood. He creeps forward, pausing in a pocket of white light. He’s a grotesque cherub, with empty eyes wider than he is tall. He begins to sing a simple and mysterious line, energized with the life that he’ll never live. The music pours out of his tiny mouth, enveloping the commuters and the audience — who are at once passengers on the same train. In an instant, the most commanding performance of the show ends. The boy, the vision, disappears, leaving behind silence and a sense of reality that used to exist for the Metro North passengers only as words on a page.
Margulies is a mature and intelligent playwright, with a clear and unique voice. He doesn’t create heroes or villains, but real people, full of authentic emotions, ambiguous motivations, and changeable opinions. His dialogue is equally contradictory, informed with the cadence of real speech, while many lines are dramatic and poetic. Margulies is an elegant architect of drama.
The playwright is at his best when he uses his tools to tell stories in small scenes, when he maximizes his control over the flow of information and the characters’ growth. In Margulies’ most celebrated work — “Dinner with Friends,” “Collected Stories,” and “Sight Unseen” — a maximum of four characters appear onstage at any point.
“Last Tuesday” juggles seven actors (six of whom also appear in “July 7, 1994”), plus a haunting narrator. Because of its size and short length, the play — essentially one scene — doesn’t offer much depth or rich character development. But with its powerful imagery, and darts of dialogue creating a masterful symphony of chaos, the act is, overall, the better half of the Long Wharf production. Under the tight direction of Lisa Peterson, “Last Tuesday” is better acted and executed than its counterpart, “July 7,” a more characteristic — and possibly better — Margulies script.
Devoid of the supernatural, the second one-act is peripherally set around in the O.J. Simpson trial. “July 7” is composed of wrenching two-person interactions between Kate (Dana Reeve), a 39-year-old general internist at a hospital, and her patients; each dialogue exposes how tenuous and vulnerable relationships between parents and children are. The scenes unfold in simple settings — a bed, a living room, an examination room — and at a rewarding pace, jumping right into the middle of the dialogue and releasing new, insightful information as consistently as Kate’s IVs release fluids. The play is frightening for its suggestion that parents are so helpless in guaranteeing their children’s protection, but also for the fact that the people, the situations, the emotions seem so real.
Reeve, who played in Margulies’ “Sight Unseen” off-Broadway, has some perfect moments as Kate — an open, smiley woman, a down-to-earth professional. But Reeve is inconsistent as the centerpiece of “July 7.” Spots of her performance seem rehearsed; she hides some of her builds and mood-swings instead of showing the audience how she gets from here to there. She’s better as the silent passenger on the Metro North train, when she’s forced to let everything show on her face.
“Two Days” is a worthy showcase of Margulies’ superior craft. The matching themes and contrasting styles of the two one-acts complement each other well. But running only an hour and 20 minutes, and without a continuous narrative in either act, the plays seem somehow incomplete. Though both plays are designed to open up Margulies’ work — to escape domesticity and touch on issues of race, health care, and world conflict — the plays seem, oddly, to lack the emotional scope of Margulies’ other work. Margulies needs not push beyond the living room to resonate with his audience.
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