By Simon Gray
LA WEEKLY – December 3-9 1999
SIMON GRAY ‘S 1997 OTHER WISE ENGAGED (At Pacific Resident Theater) offers a glimpse back to a time when metaphysics in the theater was still sneaking out from under the rug of the domestic dramas and farces of the 9130s and 9140s. While the French supported the likes of Eugene Ionesco and Samuel Beckett, and the Italians had Luigi Pirandello, the English —- a decade or more later, actually —- produced Harold Pinter and his literary cousin, Gray. Determined to expose the limitations of our ability to have an original thought, these playwrights shared a penchant for slicing sentences into gibberish and absurd repetitions, thereby revealing how our phrases and actions, ergo our ideas, are for the most part programmed by habit, and constitute a mask covering spiritual desolation.
Otherwise Engaged is about the oppositions of marriage and contentment, of words and wisdom. Like the protagonists in so many of Gray ‘s plays (Butley, Close of Play, Quartermaine ‘s Terms), London book publisher Vinon Hench (Kevin Quinn) is a bright and superficially cheerful man who hungers to be lifted up and away from a bickering world filled with so much petty intrigue, even success resembles failure. Where Hench ‘s schoolteacher brother (Stuart W. Howard) —- a graduate of second-tier Redding College —- yearns to be appointed assistant schoolmaster ahead of an Oxford-educated rival, Hench somehow just can’t get into the competitive spirit. Instead, he emotionally glides right over such concerns. Specifically, Hench loves his Wagner the way Louis Slotin loves his Mozart. In the attempt to spend a blissful evening with a scratchy recording of Parsifal, he hasn’t absorbed more than the first measure or two before he ‘s interrupted by any number of visitors: the aforementioned brother, a seductress writer (Andi Carnick) who parades topless in his living room to secure a book contract, an alcoholic literary critic (the robustly energetic Stephen Hoye), a student tenant (Frank Gasnina), a suicidal former classmate (Lawrence Arancio, in a starchy yet pathosfilled performance) and, finally, his wife, Beth (the marvelous Stacie Chaiken), who may be having an affair (an issue that renders Otherwise Engaged something of a parlor drama after all). The question of the affair —- Beth ‘s ability to express it, Hench ‘s ability to absorb it —- is at the crux of what Hench denigrates as “this overexplanatory age.” For Hench, his marriage arrangement” is easier to take without words. Interesting, considering he ‘s a publisher. Michael Rothhaar ‘s direction is persuasive, if far from impeccable. Some of the repartee —- e.g., “Some sherry if you have it ” “Yes, I have” “Then some sherry if I may “Yes, you may” —- is not yet lighting sparks. Castrina ‘s snobbish student is an emotive force with a disconcertingly wobbly dialect. And perhaps it does take an Alan Bates (who opened the play in 1977) to create a Hench who ‘s fully settled into his surroundings; though Quinn is very good, the artifice of his English persona shows like a shirt that ‘s not quite -tucked in. On the other hand, the women in the cast light up the stage. Truly impressive is Rothhaar ‘s ability to paint the play ‘s symmetrical architecture with a lightness that keeps the production floating. This is in part attributable to Victoria Profltt ‘s lavishly detailed set, with its sky-blue walls. The sky, after all, is where Hench longs to be engaged.~