Onto the pile of flimsy aphorisms professing in generalities and absolutes some knowledge of the deliberately complex business of literature, let me throw down my own rusty gauntlet: good writing is like sculpture, bad writing like engineering. Michelangelo saw a form pulsating in the marble; math and labor followed this vision. The engineer designs solutions for a dilemma: she decides the world needs a more efficient vacuum cleaner and sets about making one. The difference being the artist follows his folly – the muse jots down coordinates on wet cocktail napkins, her penmanship atrocious, the cloth disintegrating – while the engineer follows his logic, deliberately cobbling together parts to create the most functional machine.
This is not to cast the business of writing as merely the transcribing of incantations from something sacred within nor to caricature the writer as a conduit drunk on the heady wine of mythic inspiration, rather to argue – weakly, as aphorisms only can – that inspiration ought to spark somewhere so dark its subject cannot be but briefly illuminated; math and labor will reconstruct what creature you glimpsed there. But to decide from the outset, ‘I will write a play about such and such’ – say, war, and love, and loss, and how the strain of great responsibility really isn’t so different from the misery of a small life – cuts you off from the basic process of writing, namely, vision, the struggle to see your subject, the struggle to reconstruct it, the struggle to make others see it how you do. Instead you are fitting together parts to create a machine: does this character effectively convey ‘x’ idea, does this scene adequately address ‘y’ issue? Writing is a deliberate practice; revision, especially, often feels like a scientific undertaking, but art is not a scheme; it has no schemata. It is not a solution to a problem: it is an address against the dark.
Of course it is ignorant and frankly rude to assume intention on the author’s part; still, Cusi Cram’s new play Radiance feels like a piece of amateur engineering.
These are the facts. On August 6, 1945, a B-29 Superfortress bomber named The Enola Gay took off from Tinian Island carrying twelve crewman and a nuclear payload which it dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. On May 11, 1955, the co-pilot of that mission, Robert Lewis, appeared on the popular television program This Is Your Life where he met and shook hands with Kiyoshi Tanimoto, a Christian minister from Hiroshima, who was lobbying for money and plastic surgery on behalf of the Hiroshima Maidens, a group of women badly disfigured from the bomb blast. John Hersey, author of “Hiroshima,” an article published in the August 31, 1946 issue of the New Yorker (later published in book form by Knopf), describes how minutes before the taping of that episode, Captain Lewis was found drunk in a Hollywood bar.
The events surrounding the taping of that episode, interwoven with an entirely fictional account of Captain Lewis’s encounter with the owner and accountant of that bar, is, plainly, the plot of Radiance. There are two main characters – Captain Lewis and May, the buxom, woebegone accountant of that bar, mistress of its owner – and a small cast of secondaries.
I’ve seen vignettes in sitcoms wherein the characters are transported to a stylized, Hollywood-version of the American 1950’s. Self-consciously hacky lingo abounds – every woman is a ‘Miss,’ a ‘Dame.’ The men are hard-boiled but upright. The women are vixens, breasts spilling out of their period dresses. It’s ridiculous, but that’s the point. Radiance strikes the same campy tone, only it’s an accident or thinks its equally self-conscious moments of Intense Emotion effectively temper the cartoonish humor, creating a compelling work of contrasts. It doesn’t. Radiance is in tone, in direction, on paper and in its realization, a failure.
However the production is not without some merit, and while what does work contributes only a small share to the overall production, the set designer, David Meyer, and tertiary actor, Aaron Roman Weiner, deserve accommodation for their excellent showings. The set, a sweat-and-shame-stained bar baked in the Los Angeles sun, exudes a bacon-bourbon-and-eggs authenticity so palpable it’s pungent. Likewise, Weiner, as both the nebbish, anxious Waxman, producer for This Is Your Life, and the stoic, stalwart pilot of The Enola Gay, Tibbets, masterfully humanizes stock characters, never flirting with the familiar tropes of stereotype.
Besides the work of these two, there is little to recommend, though on whom the blame ought to fall is a piquant question. Take Ana Reeder, lead actress. As May, she is a cliché so straightforward the resolution of her story is easily discernible from the first scene. A fading beauty trapped in a sorry job, in a sorry relationship, she longs for freedom and youth and happiness, or at least another drink. She (like so many characters in this production) curses pointlessly, seemingly out of step with the overly observed 50s manners evident everywhere else in the script. She is given to platitudes as dumb as the most execrable adolescent poetry (“I wish I could be a shadow”), and her weak lines are delivered in all seriousness, with all the subtlety and wit of an actress who doesn’t seem to realize that her character is an unfortunate joke. One would think, then, that the writer and actress are to blame. Yet later, Reeder takes up the role of Evelyn, a WWII Red Cross nurse, with just that – wit and subtlety. Genuinely affecting, natural and a pleasure to watch, Evelyn rescinds whatever conclusions May leads us to draw of actress Ana Reeder. So it is the director and writer who are to blame for May’s tiresomeness.
One encounters a similar dilemma in nailing down the studied awkwardness of the lead, Captain Robert Lewis, played by Kohl Sudduth. Like a sitcom character who can’t commit to the good-natured silliness of the 50s vignette, Lewis is bizarrely stilted, smacking of a sociopath trying to pass for normal, utterly unbelievable and, like May, flat out tiresome. Lewis may as well be named Former Military Man Who Drinks Too Much Because He Is Upset About What Happened In the War. The inspiration for this character runs no deeper, but Sudduth fails to fill the excessively modest suit cut for him. Yet he fails so strangely and in such a consistent way that it must have been by design. Sudduth is not a first-timer. He was directed into this miserable corner. In service of what aesthetic purpose, I can’t say.
Kelly AuCoin, as the licentious, hapless barkeep Artie and as the New York Times journalist William Laurence, while never rising above the prepackaged emotions of the all-too familiar Artie nor distinguishing himself in his brief turn as Laurence (a generally well-played role that suffers from a distractingly bad Russian accent), is burdened neither by the banality of May nor the unbelievability of Captain Lewis, though it is hardly to a production’s credit when an actor is free enough from directorial misguidance to be merely adequate.
The dialogue is weak. The plot is obvious. The characters are stock. The direction is all wrong. Why make this thing at all? It seems writer Cusi Cram wanted to write a play, a play about big ideas, a play about love and loss and hurt and war.
War suffers no amateurs. Leave the engineering to the experts.