Paul Auster’s 1985 novel City of Glass is a philosophical enquiry in the guise of a detective novel, less interested in the story it has to tell than its own intricate whorls of language and metaphysics. Playing with the conventions of the crime novel, film noir, the urban picaresque, and modernist philosophy, it’s all somehow held together by a narrative voice that is-and-is-not Auster’s (though Auster is a character of sorts in the book). And while the book’s musings on the nature of character, the meaning of language, and the complex duplicity of identity seem like they might readily translate to the stage and to the mysterious duality at the heart of acting, Edward Einhorn’s adaptation never succeeds in finding a compelling theatrical approach to the inherently textual pleasures of the novel. Instead, it disgorges big chunks of that prose, almost undigested.
It’s a shame, because, visually, the piece is strikingly stylish (set by Christopher Heilman) and captures the tonal rhythms of film noir in both lead actor Robert Honeywell’s speech patterns and, especially, in Freddi Price’s melancholy original score (played live on many instruments by Price himself). The device Einhorn uses to approximate the narrative voice also adds an element of stylization, but soon becomes overwhelming: the narrator (Honeywell) embodies the central character, Daniel Quinn, but narrates in the third person; all the other characters are physically played by a Silent Man (Mateo Moreno) and Silent Woman (Dina Rose Rivera), who embody them through movement, but are voiced by Quinn/the narrator/Honeywell. Quinn, a mystery novelist at a crossroads in his life, is drawn into impersonating a private detective named Paul Auster after receiving an insistent series of wrong-number phone calls seeking the investigator. When Quinn’s investigation runs into a dead end, he goes in search of the real private detective Paul Auster, only to find that there is no such person: the real Paul Auster is a novelist, and while he’s intrigued by Quinn’s story, he can do nothing to help crack the case. In the play’s first moments, when the three performers play the three facets of Quinn (the man himself, the pseudonym he uses to write mystery novels, and the hero of those novels) as perfect mirrors, a tense theatricality clicks into place.
But it’s a mood that can’t be sustained. The piece never takes shape as either the story of an investigation or a noirish look into the darker, more opaque sides of human nature. Instead, it lurches between monologues that feel like lectures. Honeywell shows complete conviction in whatever he’s asked to do – from stepping inside the damaged mind of Quinn’s client Peter Stillman to explicating the true authorship of Don Quijote to portraying both sides of a dialogue between Quinn and Stillman’s wife, Virginia – but as a director, Einhorn seems to push everything to such a pitch of stylization that it becomes almost frantic. And yet the piece, taking place essentially inside the mind of the narrator, and the obsessions of its characters, has an airless, claustrophobic quality that feels more stifling than intriguingly unsettling.
About three-quarters of the way through City of Glass, adaptor/director Einhorn suddenly enters the piece via video, narrating and echoing the actions at a key point. As Quinn meets Auster, Einhorn appears in video, doubling the language we hear Quinn and Auster speak, and reading some of the stage directions. While the piece has been full of such doublings and mirrorings and plays on the centrality and meaning of identity, this one feels intrusive. Einhorn’s programme note, “With every adaptation I create, I ultimately reconceive the context and make it about myself and my art,” makes the significance of the intrusion obvious. But a piece about the creator’s art has an inherent solipsism, one that ultimately handicaps City of Glass.
City of Glass is on until 12th march 2016. Click here for tickets.