I'm not entirely sure when it hit me, but I remember a disquieting, uncomfortable feeling, something odd sometime around the third scene, or maybe after the fourth. This play, I thought, is not going anywhere. It's meandering and it's never coming back.
This Main Street Theater world premiere of Thomas Hagemann's 1946 is a bit like being awestruck at our Settegast rail yards. There are so many tracks and so many cars, coming and going, horns tooting, whistles blowing. A train roars in, cars are unhitched, different cars hitched up and an entirely new train pulls out to a destination unknown. It's busy, noisy and confusing, and you don't know where to look. So much whirls around you.
Hagemann's play is one dizzy depot.
I assume the play was intended to be a slice of post-WW II Americana with servicemen returning home after the definitive battle of good versus evil. There are flyboy heroes and gals eager to meet them. There's shared camaraderie in the horrors seen and horrors inflicted; there's the “we're all in this together” spirit of equality and color-blind service to the country; there's small-town America waiting to put this war behind and charge ahead into a boundless future. There are hints of The Best Years of Our Lives, but without that movie's epic sweep, and traces of everyday Thornton Wilder, but without his epochal poetry, and hints of William Inge, but without his hothouse neurotics, and even a touch of Tennessee Williams, but without his fragrant language. 1946 is a hodgepodge of allusions to better things.
Themes are picked up and suddenly dropped; characters switch their identifying traits; scenes end when they should begin; scenes begin when they should be over. There may in fact be five or so different plays swirling inside this one. Hagemann throws in everything he can think of and never stops to consider whether one scene, or one bit of pertinent business, might lead logically to the next, or if, for example, a character who's dramatically summoned to her father's bedside has a payoff in the ensuing scene. There is none, in case you're wondering.
The play begins with an intriguing premise: Dad (Bill Roberts, who ages throughout the play by channeling curmudgeonly Lionel Barrymore at his most annoying) is dictating his reminiscences about his beloved San Antonio sanitarium. His hospital cures alcoholic servicemen, and he is very proud. A memory play about the troubled men he has cured? Not so fast. The hospital idea is dropped after Dad puts down his Dictaphone. It will be cryptically referenced in a later scene by icy Mom (Christianne Mays) as she sells the property for a quick buck. So much for a medical rehab drama.
The play wanders to the doctor's two daughters, Lilian (Kelley Peters) and Maxine (Lisa Villegas), who have met two returning airmen, Tony (Scott Gibbs) and best bud John (Shane Manning). Tony is dreamy, drools Lilian, but all we see is a lug of a bigot, castigating Jews, blacks, gays and everybody else not from home state Missouri. He's sort of a lovable bigot, and played with genuine aw-shucks appeal by Gibbs, but, Holy Racist, this is our hero? We're supposed to like this guy? This is the play's fatal flaw. It never recovers.
Tony is hot to trot, but Lilian is “not that kind of girl.” After some frightfully drab interaction, Lilian is relegated to the living room couch, while Maxine goes full throttle after the pilot. Maxine's sudden blaze of passion must have occurred during a scene change, because it's never dramatized. And if Lilian is such a goody-goody, why for heaven's sake is she knitting a pink baby sweater in a subsequent scene? When she's not playing a bus-and-truck version of Mrs. Venable from Suddenly Last Summer, Mom at least has the wits to ask what she's doing. “Oh, nothing,” is Lilian's blah response. Not exactly edge-of-seat drama.
The play tilts and careens, a live pachinko game, never settling down long enough to zero in on any of the many subplots and teases Hagemann blithely tosses to unintentionally trip us up. Why does Mom hate Dad so? Who is Maxine's real father? Why do Vernon and Freddie (Brandon Balque and Brandon Morgan), who beat the snot out of Tony when he drunkenly insults them, become best buds? Why does Dad lose his hospital, especially when a facility like that would be absolutely essential after the war? Why does Mexican maid Mercedes (Laura Garza) pretend she can't speak English? Why do they all sing so much? What is going on in this play? Playwright Hagemann, a noted Houston attorney, died unexpectedly last October at the age of 59, so a rewrite is moot.
When not looking somewhat ill-at-ease at the fiction they must enact, the cast works overtime to breathe some semblance of life into the stilted dialogue. Regardless, the play remains comatose. Manning, with his rubbery, average-Joe mug that would have made him a fortune as a character actor during MGM's golden years, lifts “best pal” John high above the script's feeble demands; and Villegas, as career-gal Maxine, shades her shadowy character with plenty of prickly oomph. Director Patti Bean stumbles over Hagemann and keeps everyone in frieze-dried blocking that sets the action in stone, more like a staged reading than an actual performance. And what exactly is that background set? An indecipherable triptych of Alamo front door, cheap-looking living room and a portion of a stucco wall with a stained glass window. The window lights up when John embarks for Pittsburgh, so I assume it's supposed to represent the San Antonio train depot. The mishmash is an eyesore.
To be perfectly honest, the best part of the evening is the affecting exhibit in Main Street's side corridor that showcases the Hagemann family's real-life sanitarium in San Antonio along with mementos and a few WWII posters. One in particular is striking, from the War Manpower Commission. Nine men build a tank. Emblazoned outward are the names of the workers: Cohen, du Bois, Hrdlicka, Kelly, Lazarri, Nienciewiscz, Santini, Schmidt and Williams. “Americans All,” shouts the quote from Franklin D. Roosevelt: “It is the duty of employers and labor organizers to provide for the full participation of all workers without discrimination because of race, creed, color, or national origin.”
Nothing in this world premiere matches this all-American testament, nor comes anywhere close.
1946 continues through April 17 at. Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Boulevard. For more information, call 713-524-6706 or visit mainstreettheater.com. $36-$39.
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