The Singing Forest
nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
April 23, 2009
Craig Lucas is one of but a few contemporary writers for the theatre whose plays I can enjoy more than once in a short period of time. The Singing Forest, his most epic work to date, is characteristically ambitious in mind and heart, and each scene is a densely packed bundle of life. When you see it—and I highly recommend that you do—allow yourself to get lost a bit, relish the complexity, be thankful that questions come up and that you don't know what will happen next. Unlike most on offer, Lucas's plays drop you, wide awake, in the middle of a dark, funny and brutal wilderness; it is a testament to the play's richness that you might feel the need to see it twice.
Currently running at the Public Theatre in an often thrilling production by Mark Wing-Davey, The Singing Forest dramatizes Marx's famous maxim, "history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce," as it shifts between a harrowing depiction of the Nazis' encroachment on Freud's Vienna in the late 1930s and an entirely different culture of survival—New York City in 2000, where analysis, Alcoholics Anonymous, and Starbucks are necessary for most city-dwellers to make it through their day. The story that warps and weaves (or slowly unravels, depending on how you look it at) is the complicated life of Loë Reiman, an octogenarian defrocked psychoanalyst, whom we first meet when she stumbles into an AA meeting, smilingly in her cups, to give her take on making amends:
Can Hitler make amends? I ask you. Are some things beyond amending? So you drank too much and forgot you left your infant in a locked automobile all day long in the sun? Is it really about you? "Oh, too bad, I was wrong, I killed my baby by mistake, sorry, sorry, now I can feel better, I give it all up to some Higher Power." You think a Higher Power has plans for you? What if His plans include annihilation in the gas chamber, who's going to make amends to whom?
Needless to say, Loë is a bit bitter from the irreparable loss she has experienced at the hands of history (including the horrific death of her gay brother in a concentration camp) and is unconvinced of the forgivability of her own actions, which have left her estranged from her children and living in a loft in Staten Island, brimming with antique treasures of the 20th century. As played by the singular and superb Olympia Dukakis, the Diogenesian Loë is one of the most endearingly vicious characters I have ever seen. And though somewhat sympathetically wrought, her children Oliver—who accidentally had his mother disbarred and is now actively seeking the disbarment of Shar, the former therapist/lover of Laszlo, Oliver's much younger boyfriend—and Bertha—who lives off the money from her dead Arab billionaire husband whom she accidentally burned to death, and spends her days shuttling between therapy and Starbucks, seeking her own estranged child, Jules—seem by comparison the ones who should quit complaining (about being abandoned or ignored or being called "the little Nazis" when they were kids) and just get over it.
Lucas needs every moment of his three acts to show you how this fragmented family—and certain of their lovers and colleagues and patients—end up in Loë's Klimt-cluttered apartment. I find the twists and turns nothing short of exhilarating, and many of the performances are delightful, such as Mark Blum as the conniving boob Oliver, and Jonathan Groff (who, after his exquisite turn in Prayer for My Enemy this past fall, is becoming a definitive interpreter of Lucas's work) as Gray, a non-inward-looking young actor who gets caught up in this mess in several ways that I cannot possibly describe here. Also noteworthy are John Gromada's sensitive sound design and haunting original music, and John McDermott's clever and magnificent set, both of which corporealize an entirely captivating world that Mark Wing-Davey and his actors have conjured from Craig Lucas's fascinating new play.