In a programme note for the British première of one of his plays a couple of years ago, Terrence McNally defended American drama against the oft-levelled charge (from Britons) of "sentimentality"; such plays are, he argued, simply concerned with feelings. Well, yes, up to a point. But the first two plays in this short Carlton-sponsored season of new American writing at the Donmar each succumb in their own way to the temptations of easy button-pushing practised on a presumed liberal and/or middle-class audience.
Morphic Resonance, by Katherine Burger, lies squarely within McNally territory: in fact, substitute hetero for homo, cancer for AIDS and insert a dose of father-daughter reconciliation, and the play could almost be generated by a running a computer search-and-replace routine on the script of McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion! – even the frustration of a former dancer is common to both plays. So we have two young Manhattanite couples, who apparently have jobs but no evident money worries and can thus spend their time talking about their feelings, often at the conveniently opulent upstate home of the widowed banker father of one of them. One of the couples drifts apart, the other – seemingly less well matched – is brought closer by illness, and so on and so forth. Anastasia Hille gives a moving portrait of the physical decline and emotional turmoil of the ailing Alice, and Burger justifies the play's title (which refers to a kind of semi-telepathic form of learning through the experience of others elsewhere) by showing us on a couple of occasions several parallel variants on conventional tropes of social chat. Mostly, though, the play itself seems to have osmosed the common ingredients of so many similar pieces. There used to be a sub-genre of British drama known dismissively as "adultery in NW3"; Morphic Resonance belongs to the more recent American type, "angst and illness in 10014".
Kia Corthron's Splash Hatch On The E Going Down (and even having seen the play, I am none the wiser as to what its title may mean) relies on righteous indignation rather than compassion for its effect. As Harlem teenager Thyme's pregnancy progresses, she recites screeds of statistics and admonitory anecdotes about the global environment in general and the socio-economic marginalisation of Harlem in particular. Meanwhile, her husband falls prey to lead poisoning, her best friend miscarries, and she and her family remain caught in the trap of being not quite poor enough for welfare. Shauna Shim's Thyme, under Roxana Silbert's direction, is a bright, engaging and engaged figure, and Corthron seems to be saying that even such obvious abilities are squandered and eroded on a planet/country/city/district such as this. But the drama is no more than a diaphanous veil across the scattergun polemic which is the author's real Message with a capital M.
Corthron loudly and repeatedly tells us that we should care; Burger is fixated on the concept and process of caring; neither writer succeeds in linking, or bothers to link, the core concerns of her play up to plausible human characters.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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