BACK STAGE WEST
June 11, 1998
at the Matrix Theatre
There is rare pleasure to be had in the Matrix's now-regular double-casting, in which two actors are assigned each role in each production and then mixed and matched throughout the show's run in various combinations. With a play as resonant and troubled as Larry Atlas' Yield of the Long Bond, this pleasure is especially acute, if problematic. Atlas' bleak love triangle between a rogue Wall Street investor, a slick young lawyer, and a down-at-heels Episcopal pastor is so perorative and schematic, giving each of its three characters more fourth-wall-breaking speeches than real interaction--more to say to us than to each other--that it represents a sort of acting triathlon, a three-way show of dexterity and force. And since Atlas' characters are so atomized and, in director Andrew J. Robinson's artful, worried staging, so sharply drawn, it is easy to imagine all six actors interchanging willy-nilly without much variation in the production's impact.
That impact is no less harsh for its seeming, at bottom, profoundly confused. In pitting a sleek, beautiful young professional woman between a rich vulgarian and a queasy idealist and making her the battleground (unfortunately quite literally) for an intensely serious debate on faith, hope, and love, Atlas risks the canard that he's doing what men, and male writers, have always done: Looked to women for redemption, even as we deemed them in need of our rescue.
The young attorney Ellen Kastner (Julia Campbell, Anna Gunn) is a fallen angel at best, a squeaky-clean Princeton girl unloosed into the high-powered evil and low-level spiritual drudgery of big business, where she learns to play its deadly game as perfectly as she used to say her prayers. That game includes getting into bed with such unsavory charmers as Paul Rosario (Gregory Itzin, Ian McShane), a man with the kind of terrifying self-assurance that dares a challenge. He meets his match in Ellen, who at first plays along with his sexual feints and degradations but soon loses the stomach for them, suggesting--ostensibly as a practical matter--that he get involved in charity work to offset the damage of an impending SEC prosecution.
That leads them into the weak thrall of John Shelly (David Dukes, Byron Jennings), a priest with a modest think-tank project to promote spiritual values in a soulless age--which of course leads to Ellen's wavering consideration of these issues, and in general to the level of windy, contrarian philosophizing on which Atlas clearly wants to operate. He introduces an increasingly lurid and incredible plot, and several new moral wrinkles, into the mix, but even the sudden reversals and telling observational details are as schematic as a prospectus, his dialogue often embarrasingly blunt and self-revealing.
How to play this uneasy mix of monologue, flashback, and confession? Under Robinson's unwavering gaze, these six actors manage, with varying degrees of passion, intelligence, and courage, to elevate the work into the rumination it wants to be. McShane captures Paul's arrogance and steel, Itzin his rue and sick sense of play; Gunn shows us Ellen's terrible complicity in her own loss of innocence, while Campbell suggests the possibly more terrible human fiber that has survived it. Jennings and Dukes have the most difficult, and most schematic, transition of the play; while the tender Jennings makes his priest's turnabout both brutal and pitiful, the edgier Dukes makes it movingly pathetic, a true human loss.
Deborah Raymond & Dorian Vernacchio's sparse set, Keith Endo's busy lights, and Peter Erskine's portentous music are all as deliberate, and as ultimately haunting, as is the acting, consolidating the Matrix's well-deserved reputation as one of the boldest and brightest showcases for stage talent on this coast.
"Yield of the Long Bond," presented by and at the Matrix Theatre Company, 7657 Melrose Ave., W. Hollywood. May 14-July 13. (213) 852-1445.