Ellen McLaughlin's play A Narrow Bed poses an interesting question: what happens to a two-decades-old commune during the lean years of Reagan America? McLaughlin, best known for playing Angel in Angels in America, attempts to answer this problem by exploring the disintegrating relationships of those who still inhabit an upstate New York commune. Unfortunately, the play's attempt to explore changing relationships in changing times results is a wobbly mixture of unnatural character changes, talky dialogue, and undramatic scenes.
Megan (Maria Alaina Mason), Lucy (Rachel Fowler), and Willie (Joseph Langham) are the vehicles for examining alternative living at the crossroads. Megan, a non-writing writer, and Lucy, an instructor of anthropology, are the last occupants of their cooperative. Willie, a fellow housemate, has moved to a hospital bed and is dying of alcoholism, disease, and feelings of failure. Indeed, death and loss hover over the entire action of the play, threatening the lives of Willie, the commune, and Megan and Lucy's relationship. The play shifts between scenes of Megan and Lucy's hashing out interpersonal issues, to hospital visits with Willie, to dreamlike accounts of war from Megan's dead husband John (Clint McCown), to classroom scenes of Lucy trying to teach material that resonates painfully for her.
While the characters and issues weighed in the production were interesting and relevant, the shaky text and flat direction inhibited deeper analysis and rising tension from occurring. The script struggled unsuccessfully to answer the question of the commune's fate, as evidenced by uneven scene changes, chatty and tiresome dialogue, and unearned character development. The playwright's hand is clearly visible through the facile symbolism of the lecture scenes, the overbaked ironical lines at scene endings, and the unearned exchange of positions between Megan and Lucy during the second act. Topics of conversation popped up without motivation, and the unbelievably unexplored question of John's motivation for going to war served mechanically to drive the final wedge between the commune's last occupants. An additional confounding limitation of the play was the narrowness of these free spirits' worldview. Not a word of dialogue was devoted to issues of the day, such as the Iran-Contra scandal, or closer to home, the saving of the St. Lawrence River. Still, the actors put in energetic and emotional performances in spite of characterization flaws that made their feelings seem forced and their transformations seem manipulated.
The strongest component of the production was its technical side. The commune set (Anne Carnevale), with its 1970s wood paneling and touches of hippiedom, contrasted starkly with the white sterility of the hospital room and waiting area. Space both onstage and alongside the house was used well to convey different characters and varying angles of conflict; the lighting design (Mike Foster) ably assisted in establishing space and creating mood. Costume design (uncredited) also succeeded in creating the different worlds of the play. However, the sound design (Barry Wyner and Melissa Levine), composed of live folk-rock tunes and incidental music, was amateurish and at times downright hokey.
(Also featuring Liza Skinner.)
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Copyright 2001 Adam Cooper