On a Darkling Plain
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
January 12, 2007
Playwright Norman Beim examines the crossroads at which (or even if) long-held grudges meet acceptance and forgiveness in On a Darkling Plain, his engrossing new drama about the effects of the Communist blacklist. Even though this is a new work, it feels like one of the well-made social dramas of the 1960s. Like its predecessors of that era, On a Darkling Plain contains its share of deus ex machina plotting and soapbox proselytizing. But it also boasts a gripping central conflict and enough strong character development to make it worth your while.
The setting is 1964 New York, and the story focuses on Guy Leonard, a once-prominent stage and film actor who was blacklisted twelve years earlier. Since then, he has eked out a modest living as an acting teacher and a cab driver. But suddenly, over the course of one weekend, there are promising signs that the dark days of the blacklist may finally be receding. Guy is asked to audition for a toilet paper commercial that could lead to a series of ad spots and a lucrative long-term contract. Even though he looks down his nose at commercials, he could use the money: his teenage son has just been accepted at Harvard, and his older daughter is a sophomore at Northwestern.
Guy also has another, more complicated offer on the table. George Makapolous, an A-list theatre and film director, calls Guy and offers him the lead role in his next Broadway production. It seems that Guy and George were close friends and frequent collaborators before the blacklist. But, when George testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee and named names, their friendship went sour. Guy turned his back on his friend, viewing his testimony as a selfish and conscience-less act. George, having saved his own hide, was unable to help his blacklisted colleagues.
But now, years later, George needs a hit, and wants to reunite with Guy to see if they can strike artistic gold again. Guy needs to put himself back on the entertainment map, which he can do with either the play or the commercial. He's got his eye on one, but his supportive wife, Miriam, encourages him to do the other. And, all the while, the pain of the blacklist nags him.
Beim keeps the audience guessing whether Guy will do the commercial or the play all throughout On a Darkling Plain. Can he put aside his differences with George so they can work together again? Can he swallow his pride long enough to do the commercial and make a big payday? Guy's dilemma provides more than enough tension to sustain the play through its clunkier sections, like George's incessant speechifying and some farfetched exposition. (How does a cab driver with a stay-at-home wife sustain the mortgage on an Upper West Side apartment?)
Beim also directs the production with graceful, no-frills effectiveness, allowing his cast lots of room to make the play their own. They endow On a Darkling Plain with a fervency that holds one in thrall. Tom Sminkey turns in a thoughtful and multi-layered performance as Guy that steers the production and keeps it going in the right direction. Joan Barber matches him note for note as Guy's wife, Miriam. The two of them have a wonderful onstage rapport, and are playful and at ease with each other—much like a real married couple. Bristol Pomeroy gives an endearing performance as Jerry, the drunken advertising executive who wants Guy for the commercial, and displays a talent for physical comedy (in some sections, he mildly evokes memories of John Ritter from the early days of Three's Company). Jon Freda is brashly unapologetic as George, delivering a toughened performance that emphasizes the role's icy pragmatism.
No matter whose side one finds themselves on, On a Darkling Plain gives audiences much to think about. This is a compelling drama about people facing their own moral imperatives against a historical backdrop that still reverberates with us today. We watch in suspense as these characters make decisions we hope we'll never have to make for ourselves.