Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Nonsense and Beauty
Also see Richard's review of La Cage aux Folles
E. M. Forster, the novelist who wrote "A Room with a View," "Howards End," "A Passage to India," and "Maurice" (all of which were turned into opulent movies in the 1980s and '90s) is the main character in this two-hour and 15 minute show. His reputation is already well established when playwright Sickles takes up this true story in 1930. And, as played by actor Jeffrey Hayenga, Forster is the epitome of natty, bookish, English reserve. But like any great English drama, all of that must be steadily destroyed, and he must go practically insane in the process. All of this Mr. Hayenga does with terrific, quiet anguish.
"I want to be loved by a strong young man of the lower classes," Forster confesses to his friend J. R. Ackerley, at the outset. This will be (he hopes) a young man who will love and comfort him, and even cause him great pain, perhaps in the tradition of some great poem from the Romantic era. But in terms of dialog, it's almost clumsy, set down before us like a flashing road sign, though Mr. Hayenga brings it off smoothly.
Robbie Simpson is winning (and maddening) as that strong young man of the lower classes, Bob Buckingham, and enthusiastically takes up with the famed novelist. John Feltch is brilliant as Ackerley, Forster's longtime friend who watches with growing dismay as the April/October gay relationship bumbles forward, even after Bob has met a young woman (the delightful Lori Vega) and ostensibly fallen in love. I'm not sure this Airedale-like character reflects particularly well on straight or bisexual men, however, but in his guilelessness, Mr. Simpson seduces even us along the way, albeit very nearly to our horror.
Mr. Feltch is perfectly cast as the "best friend," a sort of cross between Noël Coward and Ian McKellen. He always seems to be on the verge of pointing out some embarrassing error in our etiquette (after which he would swivelphysically and psychologicallyand elegantly, perhaps to elaborately insist it means absolutely nothing at all). But the jealousy and hurt of his Ackerley, and of Forster too, as wronged and wounded older gay men in unenlightened times is blistering (the play carries on forward to 1970). And when things get really rough in Forster's ill-fated romance, it feels like we're all shouting across a gulf of ages at a deeply unjust past, and at our own foolishness.
If I've made it sound like a sort of valentine for older, single gay men, that's probably an error on my part. The hard feelings are poisonous, and an odd sense of petty vengeance dogs the characters in the second act. Many of the speeches, where one character has to sit down and talk sense to another, play more like Somerset Maugham in their remorseless intensity and the ruined helplessness they induce. (There is, however, a very nice plot reversal that gradually develops after the younger man initially observes that all Forster's characters seem either intensely romantic or hopelessly lost, and he and the novelist will switch roles in that dialectic throughout the play.) Anyway, Bob's wife May (Ms. Vega) eventually has to dope-slap him an inch closer to common sensesince he merely represents the "outer order" of society, as a policeman; and she, the "inner order" (a nurse), has seen more of life. It scarcely matters though, because, like a male Lolita, his boyish superficiality is still the great riddle, long after the crowd goes home.
Donna Weinsting, a local favorite among actors, breaks new artistic ground as Forster's dour mother as the show proceeds. Inevitably, we hear echoes of the actress's many past comedy roles in her earlier scenes. And as a side-note, overall, everyone but Mr. Hayenga's own sense of comedy may have been about 10% overplayed on opening night. But, with the aid of director Gordon, Ms. Weinsting becomes uniquely hardened as the play goes on, even as the others are maddened by the younger man's innocent duplicity.
Nonsense and Beauty, through March 24, 2019, at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, on the campus of Webster University, 110 Edgar Rd., St. Louis MO. For more information visit www.repstl.org.
The Players (in speaking order):
Additional Production Credits: