Jordan Harrison is too young to remember the fallout shelters of the '50s. He's also probably too young to remember, a generation later, Ronald Reagan telling us that if we were driving and saw a mushroom cloud, we could save ourselves by pulling over and digging a protective trench underneath our car. A tender 25, Harrison would have been a tiny sprout during the whole Day After hullabaloo of the mid-'80s. But somehow he still captures the paranoia in his crepuscular Finn in the Underworld, now premiering at the Berkeley Rep.
Sisters Gwen and Rhoda haven't seen each other in a long time, and their reunion to pack up their dead father's house starts out tense. Things don't get any easier when Gwen's son Finn show up to help; there is too much unspoken between mother and son, who is already something of a ghost in his own life. Meanwhile the deceased patriarch, who made his fortune in fallout shelters, becomes more of a malign presence with every tick of the grandfather clock the women are trying to decide whether to sell. While some of the discoveries the family makes as it sorts and packs are pleasant -- Rosemary Clooney albums, a martini shaker -- many of them aren't, and the house draws ever tighter around them. Harrison keeps the dialogue funny and arch near the beginning, but menace hangs heavy over the proceedings from the start. This is a classic gothic ghost story, updated: an old house full of secrets, unspoken deaths, boxes that yield embarrassing or frightening objects, and plenty of creepy music. David Korins' realistic set squeezes as Darron West's sound effects boom and crash; the design is a late-night movie writ large.
To build Finn, Harrison drew from both his own family and literary tradition, naming Henry James' The Turn of the Screw as the play's most important influence. There are certain resonances, but one is not a reinterpretation of the other. Harrison's ghosts, for example, are far subtler than James' Mr. Quint and Miss Jessel, and eventually more involved with the other characters. And there are other little touches: a brother and sister being menaced, the fear of corruption, a boy expelled from school for reasons that the other characters are loath to talk about.
Indeed, there's a lot this family is loath to talk about, and that's what drives Harrison's story. The things they don't want to discuss will make this play uncomfortable for many. As the ushers have obviously been carefully coached to point out, there is "mature subject matter" -- namely men being sexual with other men, and some quietly ferocious violence -- and the work is scary and creepy on top of that. But -- and this is an important but -- there's nothing gratuitous in the plotting. The sex is graphic without showing a lot of skin; Harrison captures the uneasy banter of people trying to seduce each other very well. You'll get sleazier sex and more graphic violence on television any day of the week. The challenge for audiences is to look past the sex to what lies behind it, a tale of misplaced trust and vengeance from beyond the grave. More disturbing than the sex is what Harrison suggests about what families hide, and what kinds of lies are considered acceptable to keep the peace.
Finn will be familiar to anyone who has hung out with young gay men, men just coming into themselves -- he's brash and artless, he represents himself as more experienced than he probably is, and he secretly wants to be taken seriously, yet has no clue about how to make that happen. This proves to be a problem, since his family really isn't ready to deal with either his sexuality or the fact that he's an adult. Recent Atlanta export Clifton Guterman, who just played Smike in CalShakes' Nicholas Nickleby, is a flirtatious, pouty Finn. In the second half, when the playwright pulls the rug out from under the audience and starts switching around his characters, Finn becomes a young friend of his grandfather's, and Guterman gets that exactly right.
Lorri Holt plays Finn's flaky mother Gwen against the sarcastic, plodding Rhoda (Randy Danson). Gwen is sensitive to invisible presences, so she gets pills. Is Gwen really seeing ghosts, or is there something physically wrong with her? Or both? Holt's Gwen is twitchy and high-strung, prone to strange fears ("I went off L'Oréal; I felt like it was working its way into my synapses") while Danson's Rhoda is pragmatic and solid. Finn thinks he's running rings around the diffident, older Carver (Reed Birney), goading him and complaining about the older man's vanilla-ness, but Carver's secrets are the deepest of the lot.
At Brown, the playwright was a student of Paula Vogel, who stunned the theatrical world with her How I Learned to Drive, which featured a pedophile protagonist who was not only sympathetic but likable. Vogel, who as a student herself got dumped or ignored by more than one program, talks about her "cockroach theory." In it, she plans to pave the way into each studio or theater where her work is performed for "ten or twelve" new young playwrights. So when Harrison has a character in Finn talk about naming the cockroaches in the old house, he may or may not be referencing his mentor's plan for world domination, but it's funny either way. Harrison also picked up what he calls the Vogel twist, choosing to let the second half of the ninety-minute play get a lot more abstract than the first, forcing the audience to float with the change and hope for an ending that makes sense. Which it does, even if it's not a happy one.
It's exciting and unfortunately novel to see a large East Bay house tackling a work with honest-to-God openly gay characters. There were lesbians in the Rep's La Fetes de la Nuit last season, DLOC did La Cage aux Folles last year, Willows had a (seriously underplayed) gay subtheme in its recent Deathtrap, and CCMT has a gay couple in its current Full Monty, but other than that, gay and lesbian characters show up on this side of the bridge only in the smaller houses: Impact (which is single-handedly taking up the slack: Scab, Othello, Nikki Goes Goth, etc.) and to a lesser extent Shotgun. And they're complicated, multidimensional characters, not flimsy, virtuous ones designed solely to counteract prejudice. Gay audiences may take umbrage at the pedophilia; gay folk spend a lot of time already battling the misconception that homosexuality and pedophilia go hand in latex glove. But so much of contemporary gay theater is theater with its fangs pulled that it's exciting to see something with ambiguous characters in troubling situations. Disturbing as it is, Finn is a well-made thing, daring and remorseless.
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