The Dark at the Top of the Stairs
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
April 4, 2007
Transport Group's sleepy new revival of the William Inge classic, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, is confounding. Inge's script, about an Oklahoma family's struggle with domestic discord, economic change, and itinerancy in the early 1920s, is full of big, messy emotions. But, director Jack Cummings III steers this production clear of most of them in favor of a more orderly and studied approach that emphasizes painterly stage composition. But, to what end? Sure, Cummings and his designers create terrific visuals—the production looks like an Edward Hopper painting come to life. But what they gain in beauty they lose in urgency. Cummings's direction stalls the action with so many (I'm guessing) deliberate silences that he cuts the play's emotional energy off at the knees.
Rubin Flood is a traveling salesman for a harness company who may soon be out of a job: people just aren't buying harnesses anymore, now that automobiles are becoming popular. His wife of seventeen years, Cora, is devoted but rarely intimate with him. When they get into a fight that ends with him hitting her, the Floods' marriage is thrown into doubt, which couldn't come at a worse time. Their wallflower teenage daughter, Reenie, is preparing to attend the biggest party of her young life, while their spoiled and reserved ten-year-old son, Sonny, is withdrawing further into himself. Amidst this turmoil, Cora tries to muster the courage to ask her chatty sister, Lottie, if the family can move in with her. Ruben has since gone off on a business trip, and there's no telling if he'll be back this time.
Like Transport Group's last production, an equally lethargic revival of Tad Mosel's All the Way Home, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs features a female protagonist who is loyal, virtuous, and a little boring (at least, as portrayed here she is). Just because Cora is morally upright and remains strong when her back is up against the wall does not make her inherently interesting, but Cummings and actress Donna Lynne Champlin seem to think otherwise. They take Cora at face value without injecting any personality or life of their own into her.
One can also feel Cummings handling Inge's play with kid gloves, like it's a precious and fragile antique. Cummings's reverence for the piece is obvious—so much so that his clean and tidy production drains the life from it. He inexplicably keeps the audience at an emotional distance as if he wants them to admire the play without actually feeling or experiencing it.
Thankfully, not everyone in the cast toes the company line. The best moments in The Dark at the Top of the Stairs come from those who break free of the production's propriety and bring some heated life force to it. Patrick Boll, a holdover from (and the highlight of) All the Way Home, gives another wonderful performance as Rubin, capturing the role's robust, rough-and-tumble nature perfectly. Boll's plaintive reading of Rubin's speech about manhood late in Act III ("All these years we been married, you never once really admitted to yourself what kinda man I am. No, ya keep talkin' to me like I was the kinda man you think I oughta be.") hints at the cathartic production The Dark at the Top of the Stairs could be.
Then, there's the magnificent Michele Pawk, delivering another one of her trademark excellent performances as Lottie. Her appearance at the top of Act II gives the production a much-needed shot of adrenalin as she exposes Lottie's lonely inner landscape through a veneer of sass and anxious chatter. Pawk makes Lottie's yearning for physical intimacy evident in the way she tears into simple observations like her first ever glimpse of Rubin ("My God, he was handsome.") and her thoughts on Rudolph Valentino ("Why, I'd be scared to death to let a man like him touch me."). And when Cora asks Lottie if her husband makes love to her anymore, the steely silence that precedes her answer speaks volumes. A simply remarkable performance.
Unfortunately, the efforts of both Boll and Pawk are not enough to buoy the rest of this production, in part because their roles aren't big enough (Lottie only appears in Act II, while Rubin is relegated to brief sections of Acts I and III). The brunt of the play is laid at the feet of Cora, who feels more like a cipher than a character. What she's supposed to represent thematically is anyone's guess. All I can tell you is that, coming from a theatre company as reliable and talented as Transport Group is, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs is a frustrating disappointment.