Dakin and Macy Adams live on the southern slope of Mount Soledad, about a mile up from Bird Rock. Their terrace overlooks P.B., Mission Bay, and Point Loma. Pan left and there’s SeaWorld and, deeper back, the downtown San Diego skyline, and, on a clear day, Tijuana. Pan right: the Pacific Ocean — no people, cars, or buildings, no Southern California, just that blue languid Buddha. From their terrace, the Adamses can go urban or oceanic with a turn of the neck.
Given this configuration, in Stephen Metcalfe’s new play The Tragedy of the Commons, the audience is the view, with SeaWorld, say, house right.
Locating the home on Cygnet Theatre’s stage, and how the Adamses got there, is another matter. The interior and terrace are airy and comfortable. But the furnishings (and modest clutter: flip-flops tucked in plain sight) aren’t what you’d expect for such a lofty perch. A scrim in the rear depicts a moody sky but no houses above the Adamses’. So they live on top of Soledad? But a line in the play says otherwise. We also learn, late, that the house was a fix-me-up they bought in 1976 for $450 a month (but even in those days a view alone was worth $100,000). Such a steal may have existed in fact but in fiction is a major stretch.
It feels necessary to ground the play because the characters aren’t grounded. They exist more as parts of a debate than as people, and Commons labors to address ultimate questions.
At stake is the view. As his world — i.e., the world — crumbles around him, Dakin regards it as his one constant, even his security blanket. But what if his new neighbor, just below, cuts down the poisonous oleander bushes that separate them and builds “up,” blocking his view?
That, she does (that she is also African-American rattles Dakin’s heretofore unshakable tolerance). Dakin fumes with such angst you want to shout, “Kate Sessions Park is just down the street; that panorama’s always there.” It becomes all too clear that the “view corridor” is merely an aperture through which he crams much larger losses he cannot face. He obsesses to a point of no return and tries, verbally, to show that he and Armageddon are one.
In a letter to his daughter, an aspiring writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald said her words should “make even a forlorn Laplander feel the importance of a trip to Cartier’s.” The Tragedy of the Commons prevents this kind of empathy because, even though Jim Winker tries to show various sides, Dakin’s a cold, one-note character, built from without. Nothing halts his plummet. Even a reference to the Lamed-Vov (of which there are 36 “just men” at any point in time — one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet — not 39, as the play says) doesn’t prop him up.
Cygnet’s production is up to its high standards. But even a veteran cast can’t conceal the sense that the characters exist only as thorns in Dakin’s side. And when they exit into the wings, they have no life at all.
Stephen Metcalfe has written quality plays (his Strange Snow’s a personal favorite). But in the ones that thrive, the characters are people first and make key points on the side. Commons unfolds as if the author wants to unburden himself and makes the stage his pulpit. As a result, the script resembles indicated acting: it tells us what to feel and then does the feeling for us.
“I am going to take a heroine,” wrote Jane Austen, “whom no-one but myself will much like.”
If Emma Woodhouse had her way, every relationship in Highbury — the large village/small town 16 miles from London — would be star-crossed. She must rank among the world’s worst matchmakers (in large measure because she judges by social class alone). But somehow, in Jane Austen’s wonderful Emma, Highbury survives her shenanigans, and even she’s rewarded in the end.
Paul Gordon has turned the novel into a musical comedy, collapsing almost 500 pages into a two-and-a-half-hour sprint on stage. The book moves so fast that the Jane Austen police can rightfully cavil about omissions. What I missed is the gossip-addled town. These snoops don’t need TV. They have each other. And the slightest bit of news, like Frank Churchill driving all the way to London for a haircut, literally turns Highbury into a “situation room.”
The staging is surprisingly minimal, much closer, say, to The Fantasticks than My Fair Lady. A raked hedge maze and turntable make for instant scenes. Backed by a modest but effective five-piece orchestra, a majority of the musical is sung (often with Sondheim-inspired staccato licks). And the songs — like Austen’s dialogue — are the heart of the enterprise. The otherwise proper characters open up, as when Mr. Knightley reveals his love for “Emma”; or when Emma, on first meeting the nearly idealized Jane Fairfax, goes off in the bipolar (and hilarious) “Have a Piece of Cake,” at once prim and social, and grinding her teeth to the gums over the threat of a genuine rival.
There’s a sag, late in Act Two, as the novel’s many strands require reconnection, but overall the production moves with polish and spunk. And, as Emma, Patti Murin sings and narrates with a voice reminiscent of the young Julie Andrews. Throughout, Murin’s a charmer. So’s this show. ■
The Tragedy of the Commons, by Stephen Metcalfe
Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs Street, Old Town
Directed by Sean Murray; cast: Jim Winker, Manny Fernandes, Monique Gaffney, Francis Gercke, Veronica Murphy, Tim West; scenic design, Sean Fanning; costumes, Corey Johnston; lighting, Shawna Cadence; sound, George Ye
Playing through February 20: Wednesday at 7:30 Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-337-1525
Jane Austen’s Emma: A Musical Romantic Comedy, music, lyrics, and book by Paul Gordon
Old Globe Theatre, Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage, Balboa Park
Directed and choreographed by Jeff Calhoun; cast: Patti Murin, Jerry Lanning, Suzanne Grodner, Kelly Hutchinson, Amanda Naughton, Don Noble, Adam Monley, Brian Herndon, Dani Marcus, Adam Daveline, Allison Spratt Pearce, Will Reynolds; scenic design, Tobin Ost; costumes, Denitsa Bliznakova; lighting, Michael Gilliam; sound, John H. Shivers and David Patridge, music supervisor, Brad Haak
Playing through March 6; Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m., Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-234-5623