In the early '90s, Tony Kushner won two Tonys, a Pulitzer and just about every other major award a playwright can get. The prizes honored his Broadway smash Angels in America, a seven-hour, two-part epic that the New York Times heralded as "a true millennial work of art."
The accolades came as a surprise to Kushner, then a relatively young (mid-thirties), relatively unknown playwright; he hadn't expected Angels to be produced outside of a small San Francisco theater. And he followed that startling success with an equally startling choice: He's resurrected and reworked an old script.
Hydriotaphia, or the Death of Dr. Browne was drafted before Angels in America; the Alley is now giving the script its first major production. And not surprisingly, many of the same dilemmas, the same conflicts that Kushner went on to fully articulate with Angels -- questions of history, death, immortality, religion and politics -- are present in Hydriotaphia.
But Hydriotaphia is not the mature and focused work that Angels is. At times overwritten, at others irritatingly silly, this play hasn't quite figured out what it wants to be. Is it a baroque social farce? A deeply philosophical treatise on death and immortality? Or just a scatological but strangely highbrow version of the Carol Burnett Show?
Kushner says he has "always been drawn to historical characters.... The best stories are the ones you find in history." And so, Dr. Thomas Browne, Hydriotaphia's central character, was a real-life 17th-century scholar and writer who was (like Kushner) fascinated by death and its brutal nastiness.
In fact, Thomas Browne's 17th-century essay "Hydriotaphia" is about "the deformity of death" -- and about religion, western culture and immortality. And in Kushner's play, which considers the same themes, the famous Dr. Browne lies at center stage, on his great gilded deathbed, under wine-colored satin covers, suffering the throes of his encroaching death. As he announces to anyone who'll hear him, he can't "shit." He's stopped up. And he's got the absurdly monstrous belly to prove it.
Of course, symbolism is at work. Dr. Browne is stopped up in more ways than one; greed is killing him. He's gotten rich on the backs of the peasant class by stealing their land and their culture. This greed-is-not-good-for-the-soul message is made painfully clear when Browne spends the entire first act fighting with his own soul, who despises him.
The mix of obvious symbols, didactic messages and endless vaudeville-style gags -- such as a noise-making tube stuck into Browne to suck out bad blood -- makes the play baffling. It's impossible to know what, if anything, to take seriously.
As Browne, Jonathan Hadary is loud, morose, intelligent, subtle and at times wildly witty -- but when Browne engages his soul (Jenny Bacon) in a long philosophical harangue over immortality, death and the act of writing, all that comes across is a gobbledygook of abstractions. Browne's writing has made his soul really mad. She calls it smut, outraged that he was never able to put down on paper what she wanted to say. These lines seemed to utter the frustrations of the playwright himself, that he could not quite articulate what he wanted to say while writing his script.
Meanwhile, back in the physical world, Browne's friends and family are engaged in their own battle. They can't find a will, and everyone wants a piece of the pie. What they don't know is that the will is in the pie cooking in the stove. (How's that for slapstick and symbolism rolled up into one?) Dr. Leviticus Dogwater (Charles Dean), a stuttering Protestant minister, wants Browne's money because, well, because Protestants want everything. Browne's long-lost sister, a kick-boxing Catholic nun named the Abbess of X (Sharon Lockwood), wants his money because she wants to continue the good Catholic work of killing and maiming in God's name. His wife (Shelley Williams) wants the estate so she can give it back to the peasants; she's tired of being rich. And her lover, a penniless gravedigger, wants Browne's estate because he's tired of being dirt-poor. Add to this brouhaha a pagan wood witch who wants revenge for her dead mother, whom Browne inadvertently sent to the gallows, and well, all western civilization is on stage and obviously in the throes of some serious, er, stuff.
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So many themes, so little time.
The director and the actors manage to pull some very funny moments out of the play, salvaging the evening in bits and pieces. There's the fine performance by Hadary. There's the funny scene in which Sharon Lockwood's kung-fu-fighting, split-skirt-wearing Abbess and Charles Dean's pantywaist Dogwater literally duke it out over Browne's soul. Bettye Fitzpatrick's Babbo and Alex Allen Morris's Maccabbee make a fine team as the bone-headed servants who can barely add one and one, but who utter the most sagacious lines of the evening: that life goes on, that sort of thing. John Feltch as the powder-faced, ruffle-wearing German doctor stuck in Norfolk is properly outrageous and funny, as is Jenny Bacon as Browne's sour and unforgiving soul.
Jeff Cowie's set is huge, golden, baroque and almost overpowering, though Michael Lincoln's lights and David Woolard's costumes are lovely. And Michael Wilson's direction is tremendously energetic and generous.
Still, the script itself vacillates so wildly between sophomoric slapstick and serious abstract discussions that it's impossible to locate the playwright's intention. This confusion only gets worse as the play spins wildly toward its end. In one of the most confounding moments, after Browne has died and all the money is gone, Browne's wife is invited by the forest witch to come along with her to America, to the New World. These lines are said with no detectable irony. But it's 1667, and in just 25 years the Salem witch trials will take place. Does Kushner, in all his skepticism about western civilization, really believe in the promise of a New World?
Hydriotaphia, or the Death of Dr. Browne plays through April 25 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 228-8241.