The Cave Dwellers
nytheatre.com review by David Johnston
March 1, 2007
The Pearl, one of the invaluable theatres of New York City, is dedicated to straight-no-chaser revivals of the classics of world literature. This season, they have begun to explore the plays of lesser-known American dramatists, such as Lillian Hellman and S.N. Behrman, whose works have fallen out of fashion. It's a great opportunity for audiences to discover past masters of American theatre whose last names don't happen to be O'Neill, Williams, or Miller.
The Pearl's current offering is The Cave Dwellers by William Saroyan. Saroyan, a rock star of American literature in the first half of the 20th century, is seldom performed now. His plays are sprawling, joyous, and unruly. His characters talk of love, life, and art and they never wink while doing so. His work is deeply human, life affirming, and devoutly, defiantly un-ironic.
The Cave Dwellers takes place in an old theatre on the Lower East Side in the dead of winter, which makes the Pearl production this month about as site-specific as it's possible to be. An elderly clown, an ailing actress, and an ex-prizefighter take refuge in an old theatre slated for demolition. They're eventually joined by a young girl and a family with a trained bear in tow. None of the characters have names, except for the bear and one member of the wrecking crew. Instead, Saroyan has named them either for their hopes (The King, The Queen, The Duke) or their types (The Young Girl, The Silent Boy, The Father). Henry Feiner has designed a gorgeous, evocative, decaying stage, which makes full use of the exposed brick of Theatre 80. From the start, we can sense the care and love which have gone into Shepard Sobel's production. Even the tattered drapes flutter gently to suggest a draft.
Being the Pearl, the acting is high quality. The stalwart Carol Schultz, as the dying actress, has a lovely aria in the second act where she tells a rueful story of an embittered playwright who chose "truth" instead of "life." Marcus Naylor (The Duke) takes the type—ex-boxer/tough guy with a heart of gold—and gives it warm blood. Robert Hock, as the King, brings dignity and poignancy to the role of the aged clown now forced to beg. Sean McNall does a fine character turn as the itinerant bear trainer trying to support his family.
But something doesn't work. The pace feels languid and sleepy. There's sameness to the rhythm and shape of scenes. Actors gaze dreamily into the rafters, talking of love and art. The gentle comedy feels dry. The production inadvertently emphasizes Saroyan's flaws and excesses—the lack of dramatic thrust, a reliance on types rather than characters, a tendency of people to talk about their feelings rather than taking action. Saroyan's easy sense of wonder is elusive. I found myself longing for someone not-life-affirming to crash through the door, kick over the furniture and stir things up. Even the guy sent to demolish the building (the always excellent Dominic Cuskern) turns out to be a mensch who buys everyone lunch and gives a three-day reprieve to vacate.
Can Saroyan be done now? I don't know. Maybe he's too sentimental, too heart-on-the-sleeve, too far away. Maybe his quicksilver joy is too slippery for us to grasp now. But God bless everyone at the Pearl for trying to revive this most un-modern of modern masters.
That being said, one final thing. My vote for Most Dedicated, Focused Performance by an Actor in an Utterly Thankless Role this year goes to Barthelemy Atsin, who spends the entire second act onstage in a bear suit and manages to charm. I think Saroyan would approve.