The Book of Lambert
nytheatre.com review by Allison Taylor
February 15, 2009
I have never quite understood why theatre, like fiction and unlike filmmaking, attracts writers interested in telling very autobiographical stories. As I wrote in my last review (for Dan LeFranc's Sixty Miles to Silver Lake), it's really none of my business whether the playwright has based his work on his direct experiences. And yet, it so often becomes my business—specifically when the play feels not like a complete story, but the emotional release of a playwright who thinks their private, inner demons are pretty interesting.
Such is the case for The Book of Lambert, written more than 30 years ago by Leslie Lee and being performed for the first time at La MaMa under the direction of Cyndy A. Marion. In the program, dramaturg Maxine Kern describes the playwright as taking on "the challenge of exploring the dark, frightening aspects of his own psyche." That sounds pretty intense for Lee, but despite its poetic reaches and violent outbursts, Lambert does not release any demon for us to fear—nor spark any demons for us to confront in ourselves.
The autobiographical character in question is (naturally) Lambert, an African American intellectual isolating himself in an abandoned subway tunnel while recovering from a difficult breakup with a Caucasian woman, Virginia. Like a parody of a prophet, Lambert guides a troupe of lost souls who too have hidden themselves underground. When he's not recalling his coy interactions with Virginia or sleeping with a sex-obsessed waif, Lambert practices his preaching on Michael Clancy, a shell-shocked Irishman wrestling with suppressed memories of his black elementary school teacher.
When you piece together the various episodic scraps (the dream sequences, the memories, the non-sequitur scenes), Lambert clearly wants to explore racial strife and gender relations. But those efforts are prevented by Marion's dreamily disjointed direction and Lee's stream-of-consciousness writing. Most importantly, Lee's characterization of Lambert remains distant, hollow in all his howling, despite the best efforts of Clinton Faulkner. Never whiny in his complaints and always noble in his lecturing, Faulkner endows Lambert with real distress, with a genuine need for...well, something. The play's episodic chaos might otherwise be frightening, but without that central character fleshed out and the throughline dimly lit, there's nothing with which to connect and no place to fear going.
Other than Faulkner, the highly stylized acting rarely reveals a glimpse of internal reflection. It's almost as if the cast were imitating a demonstration of their parts, a style so all-encompassing that I can only assume that's what the director wants. Of the supporting cast, the quietly desperate Arthur French as a grumpy blind man, and the dryly sarcastic Joresa Blount as a pregnant woman desperately trying to squeeze her baby out, do best with their thinly drawn material.
Somewhat oddly, Lambert's visual components do not seem to match the surreal nature of the acting and the writing. Andis Gjoni's set—a smattering of mattresses, blankets, and well-placed pieces of junk—highlights the comfortableness that this outcast group has created, rather than the inherent eeriness and loneliness of a subway tunnel. In turn, rather than depicting a needed sense of creepy grittiness, Russel Phillip Drapkin's shadowy lighting more often theatrically spotlights the play's emotional moments.
Instead of letting the lighting do the work, what I really wanted was for Lee to step up and write about himself. This disorderly structure and surreal scenes may have been quite interesting in The Book of Lambert, had Lee focused with detail on a central need for his hero.