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Reckless, at the Biltmore

The recent revival of Craig Lucas's play Reckless, at the MTC, starred Mary Louise Parker, last seen at MTC in Proof and last seen in Reckless as a member of the supporting cast. That was the movie version, which starred Mia Farrow. The movie was almost bound to fail; movie audiences everywhere are resistant to narrative experimentation that does involve science fiction of the supernatural. The experimentation in Reckless involves the dimensions of the heroine's world. These are surreally shallow at the beginning of the play; they stretch very deep at the end.

Reckless is built on a template that I've grown a little tired of. (When the play was first produced in 1983, it was quite a bit fresher.) It calls for plenty of humor and surprise until about a third or a quarter of the way from the end, at which point the tone darkens and the laughs dry up. The turn from frivolous theatricality to earnestness is hard to navigate and impossible to navigate smoothly. The caesura is sharp and deep, and perhaps the wisest approach for an actor to take is to attempt to distract the audience from the fault line. That's what Ms Parker and her colleagues do. They are aided by a scene so protracted that one doesn't really mind what follows it, so long as it is over.

The jumping-off point is high-concept. It's Christmas Eve, and Rachel, a serenely happy woman, has just tucked in her darling little boys. Her long-winded acknowledgment of great happiness is punctuated by her husband's blurting out that he has hired a man to kill her. Suddenly repentant, he urges her to leave the house at once, and all but pushes her out the bedroom window into the snow. At a local gas station, Rachel calls her best friend.

Jeannette? Rachel, Merry Christmas ... No, everything's great, but listen, would you and Freddie mind taking a little spin down here to the Arco station at Route 3 and Carl Bluestein Boulevard? No, no, nothing like that, I just came outside ... Oh, isn't ? It's beautiful, uh-huh, listen, Jeannette, Tom took a ... Tom ... It's so ridiculous. He took a contract out on my life ... A contract? ... Uh-huh. Right. And, I mean the man broke in downstairs so I thought I'd better go out of the house, so I climbed out over the garage and I was afraid to ring your bell, because you have all those pretty lights and I was afraid he might be following my tracks in the snow - and so I thought maybe you'd just zip down here and we'd all have some eggnog or something, what do you say? ... Jeane - ? No ... No, I know, I am, I'm a kidder ... But - Merry Christmas to you, Jeannette, please don't ....

This is fantastic theatre. A woman in a phone booth, wearing her robe and slippers on a snowy Christmas Eve, trying to cry for help but so conditioned by the banality of American pleasantry that she can't even raise her voice. The irony is light but superb, the social comment acerbic but deft. Unfortunately, it's the high moment of the play. As Rachel is losing Jeannette's attention, a man approaches the phone booth, and Rachel is sure that he's the killer.

The killer would have made sense. He could have repented, too, and decided to spare Rachel's life, but lest she tell on him, he would have to kidnap her - something to keep us going for two acts. But it's not the killer. It's Lloyd. Lloyd seems very simple at this first meeting, but he will turn out to be a complicated mess. But Rachel is happy enough to accept a ride from him, even though the ride will take her into the next state, to another town that, like her own, is called Springfield. Boy, has this soufflé fallen.

Reckless tells the story of Rachel's wacky adventures, but it can't decide whether to focus on Rachel or on the adventures. Rachel is not a passive victim of circumstances, but her circumstances are so bizarre that we wonder what she thinks she's doing whenever she takes action. The life that Lloyd leads with his wheelchair-bound wife, Pooty, turns out to be a mirage, and the job that Rachel gets - her first, ever - looks like one from the start. It's hard to tell whether the characters (other than Rachel) are motivated by weirdly unfeeling randomness or by the playwright's hysterical desperation, but the action at any rate clips along, through a slapstick TV game show that's more than a little inspired by the old Firesign Theatre and a couple of murders-by-Champagne. Then the play just about dies, and with Lloyd in a hot-looking Santa suit (and I don't mean 'sexy').

This is the scene in the motel room. I don't see the need to explain it; it's just a scene in a motel room that is pregnant with the idea that this motel room is in hell, the hell of America's Springfields. Although Rachel patronizes convenience stores and calls on doctors throughout this alarmingly real-time simulation, she can't seem to get out of the motel room, perhaps because she doesn't try to. She tries to get Lloyd out of the motel room, but it's unclear why she doesn't just give up on Lloyd himself. When the matter is finally taken out of her hands, and we next find her in a homeless shelter, where, after several years, all the life has gone out of her. It is not difficult to construct an interpretation of all the preceding zany events to "explain" Rachel's anomie, but it would be a construction only, not a revelation of meaning. After another killing, Rachel emerges with an entirely new persona: calm, grave, and resigned. What's more, now she's the doctor. Her reunion with her surviving little boy (now a college student) is the very improbable cherry on this very absurdist sundae.

So much for the play. I don't know why Mary Louise Parker wanted to do it, instead of something newer, but perhaps the by-now notorious desertion by Billy Crudup during her eighth month of pregnancy gave the play a certain resonance. In any case, she completely diverts attention from the rickety structure of the play by impersonating one of the most heartbreakingly vulnerable figures I have ever seen on the stage. (She makes Tennessee Williams's women look like truck drivers.) She pitches her voice with an irritating grate that nonetheless makes her endearing (even if it does explain why her husband would want her dead). The smile on her face, undimmed by strange peripeties, burns from within. And when it burns out, in the motel room, Mary Louise Parker becomes someone else, a distant figure at first but, as she comes emotionally closer, a woman who has completely outgrown sentimentality. We want more from the ending than Craig Lucas will give us, but the memory Mary Louise Parker's newly serene face is, as they say in the Guide Michelin, worth the detour.

Although Reckless is almost a diva vehicle, Ms Parker's success was more than ably assisted by Mark Brokaw's direction of a game cast. Michael O'Keefe and Rosie Perez played Lloyd and his wife with assured deadpan. Carson Elrod dusted off the role of the game-show host and made it new. Olga Merediz gave her ghastly co-worker act a chilling fidelity, and Debra Monk played all five very different medical practitioners with great aplomb. Thomas Sadoski was affecting not only as the grown-up son but as his ill-intentioned father.  Allen Moyer's charming sets consisted principally of a series of window frames, hung from the flies, that were cunningly outfitted not only with snow machines but also with little gutters to collect the flakes, so that even in the absence of walls it was only snowing outdoors. (December 2004)

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