Williamstown Theatre Festival, July 8 – 19
by Jonathan Marc Sherman
directed by Nicholas Martin
Reg Rogers, Brooks Ashmanskas, Bob Dishy, Peter Dinklage, Annie Parisse, Susan Pourfar, Rightor Doyle
The Nikos Stage season opener, directed by Nicholas Martin, was a prime example of the best in American theatre. Direction, set, acting were all as skilled and perceptive as could be, not to mention the pleasure of seeing some of my WTF favorites playing together on the same stage: Reg Rogers, Peter Dinklage, Bob Dishy, and Brooks Ashmanskas—all in the best of form, even if they didn’t have quite as much to do as in some other productions, with the exception of Mr. Rogers, who had a huge job. Everyone understood whatever there was to understand about their characters, and they projected them with scores of imaginative and appealing details. I found myself savoring every one of these. Any playwright would and should be thrilled to have a play premiered in a production of this quality.
Reg Rogers plays Jerry, a forty-two-year-old editor at the Guinness Book of World Records, who is about to become a father. He favors a particular table at a particular restaurant—hence the title Knickerbocker—and the action revolves around his interactions with his wife, ex-girlfriend and various friends at this table. As the episodes of the play unfold, the table and its surrounding banquette move backwards and forwards, screens with translucent, bar-like decorations move back and forth—a cool set with elegant ergonomics, and Nicholas Martin takes full advantage of its flexibility in his spot-on timing. Silent servers congregate and disperse at various intervals, as neatly as the screens. He meets with these significant human attachments serially, one on one.
Reg Rogers has a job—a responsibility, let’s say, to enter into the language of the play—as challenging as parenthood. He has to anchor these encounters one after another, and of course he is the central character, a nice man, more than likeable, whose worst sin appears to have been a youthful enthusiasm for cannabis. He did this brilliantly, staying rooted in his character and confidently ranging out through a variety of moods, casting out sparks as he went. Of course Jerry has a friend who still partakes, although, of course, he denies it, robustly played by Peter Dinklage with a fine sense of the mature pot-head’s particular kind of squishiness. Brooks Ashmanskas, who charmed everyone last year as the lead in She Loves Me, had the unenviable task of playing an older, advice-wielding friend, who is particularly leaden as a character, but Ashmanskas brings every bit of color and interest to the role he can. Susan Pourfar was particularly impressive as Jerry’s wife, because she is charming and appealing, while conveying very clearly that she may be a bit of a bore or a pill as a wife. Annie Parisse projected lots of warmth and sympathy as the former girlfriend, further seeding the idea that Jerry may have made a mistake in his decision to marry. Bob Dishy’s performance as Jerry’s father was a tour de force. He had quite a few bases to cover in his role: the remarried father of a middle-aged son who has other things going on in his life, mainly the effect of his wonderful new cocktail of anti-depressants which does not get in the way of his sex life; the older man going on in life with the memory of a deceased wife, who was apparently difficult, but loved; the loving father who genuinely wants to give his son what he’s asking far, etc. His touching kiss to Jerry’s forehead was finest moment in the show.
A father’s love for his son is one of the greatest things nature provides, and Jerry’s father, in spite of his conflicts and distractions, can participate in it fully, at least for a minute or two. If Jonathan Marc Sherman could spin a simple yarn on stage about a simple, but at times beautiful, at times painful, fact of life, he would be in good shape. Unfortunately, he chose to complicate his simple story about the anticipation of fatherhood with as much complication, argument, and attitudinizing as he possibly could, with little sense of human interaction or good dramaturgy. Knickerbocker is really an awful play. It really isn’t a play at all. It is more a hodge-podge of incomplete essays scribbled by the various characters about life, family relations, responsibility, parenthood—all in a preachy, unbearably tedious way. Sherman has only one strategy in dialogue, constant, repetitious argument of a purely intellectual variety. He may mean this as the sort of thing that goes on in Jewish families, but on stage, as he handles it, it is boring, boring, boring. Sitting through Knickerbocker was a strange experience. I was delighted with every little detail of the production, but the play itself was so tedious, I couldn’t wait to get out of the theatre. I am the father of three excellent sons, who have given me more pride and pleasure than anything in life, and I remember the uncertain, anticipatory period, but it wasn’t anything like what Sherman presents in his hour and three-quarters. (I can’t really call it a play.) The thing is, fatherhood, motherhood, and the preparation for it or lack of it, is different for us all. Sherman’s version was exceedingly thin and trite, more or less what counsellors, priests, and rabbis offer in group sessions. Sherman skirts the whole reality of it, and the wisdom—or lack of wisdom—of Jerry’s dad doesn’t break the surface either.
Sherman has no idea of how to imitate normal human speech, and I don’t think he cares. The dialogue is a mixture of fragmentally developed arguments and bookish aphorisms. Perhaps his family talk like this, but I don’t believe it. I get together with my academic friends, and we talk like books at times, but not to this extent, much less family members and the rest. I have to admit that I may be missing something. Just as I am able to appreciate chocolate only in certain forms, I am in the minority of never having been able to connect with Seinfeld. I never could get interested in it, and I feel intensely guilty about it, because my two older sons were obsessed with it when it was still on, and I could never join them in it with any enthusiasm or comprehension, and I feel very guilty about it. Does that sound like a good reason to engage a psychiatrist…or good material for a play…or a tv show about a tv show? Did Sherman really have to name his character Jerry?
Knickerbocker is an even worse play than Freud’s Last Session. It’s curious that 2009 shows signs of neing the Season of Bad Plays. The summer theatres of the Berkshires have faced the economic crisis in a truly admirable way, and they should all know that at least I appreciate their impressive and uplifting effort. Plays are usually one of the less costly ingredients in an evening of theatre, and it’s curious that that is the one area that seems to be falling short this year.