Beneath stained glass windows, among piles of books in a study (Eric Sinkkonen’s set), an Episcopal clergywoman (Anne Darragh as Hannah) is interviewing a young writer (Chad Deverman as Brandt) amid the scholarly clutter, showing him a photocopy of an ancient manuscript, which she thinks may be the earliest, most historically authentic gospel quoting Jesus’ words.
She’s beginning a book about the apocryphal gospel, and needs a writer who’ll ghost it from her directives. In the midst of this, her “x-treme” son (James Wagner as Thomas) blows in, stuck with porcupine quills after a wild hitchhike and trek into the mountains, a part of his game with himself, playing Get Lost. Brandt plucks the quills from Thomas, whom he’s definitely noticed.
Thomas seems attached to, but rebellious towards, his mother and her expressed religiosity, which Hannah in turn keeps trying to sever from its polite image in stained glass, “like Gabriel came down to have tea with the Princess of Monaco.” And Brandt reveals he hasn’t attended church much since Confirmation, alienated from it as a gay man. But with his father dying, he’s looking for something, some kind of commitment. “One thing I know about life,” he half-jokes, “it has a habit of intervening.”
So the players—and a few of the ground-rules of the game, more like Lost & Found—are introduced in Aurora’s production of Keith Bunin’s The Busy World is Hushed, directed by Robin Stanton.
It’s not exactly three-hand poker, but there’s a certain amount of bluffing, as well as laying of cards on the table. And some of the bluffing seems to be one or another of the characters, bluffing themself. What each wants, for self or others, becomes increasingly tangled and volatile as they climb or descend the rungs of religious dispute, an often uneasy metaphor for their self-contradictory passions.
As Brandt confesses his doubts about religion and his anguish over his dying father, the hidden concerns of mother and son come out. Did Hannah’s husband die in an accident during her pregnancy with Thomas, or was it suicide? What can Thomas learn from the underlining and annotations in his father’s old Bible he has found?
Bunin’s play touches on many provocative themes: faith (and its absence) and the relevance (and popularity) of rediscovered pre- (or anti-) Nicene Creed documents to religious and social discourse in a rapidly changing world; the roles of women and homosexuals in a communion which has historically been dismissive of them; gay men seeking their fathers or fleeing (and returning to) their mothers ...
“You can’t serve two masters; I’m pretty sure that’s the appropriate verse.” The trio of actors playing the unwieldy triangle of The Busy World are pretty well cast, yet seem to be struggling in varying degrees with a script that’s neither completely worked out in dramatic terms nor fleshed out in dialogue and dramatic action which can embody and resolve its concerns.
The playwright has said, “It’s not designed to leave you anywhere,” something of a cliche concerning “problem plays” going back to the “well-wrought” originals written in the wake of Somerset Maughm’s great successes, satirically skewered by Stephen Leacock in his mock review, “Behind the Beyond.”
This genre of “problem play” is really melodrama, more or less standard issue, emphasizing wavering uncertainty in romance, family relations, belief, etc. It’s the same old three-act potboiler, but with an inverted formula: Mother loses Boy, Boy finds Other Boy (with Mother’s veiled blessing), Boy loses Boy, but Other Boy finds Mother and/or God.
Like too many plays today, generated from old formulas shaped around media events, The Busy World breaks down into a soap opera that brings up interesting things, but substitutes, for theatricality, expository metaphors, cute recitations and canned arguments through which the performers must maneuver—and which often maneuver them into a corner, or leave them half-cowed. On opening night, James Wagner, a recent ACT MFA, came off the best, partly due to his own energy and partly due to his role being the only dynamic one, allowing some opportunity for expression.
As the snippets of discussion of the apocryphal gospel recede, after it’s served its thinly veiled metaphoric purpose in the play, the ending tries to pick up the pieces with a vaguely hopeful, noncommital simile.
“Just another voice crying in the wilderness ...” Everything is very tentative, yet very conventional, like a parody of Clifford Odet’s late plays of existential anguish. It’s a throwback to the days of fashionable talk of the death of god or of the theater, or of relationships and commitment.