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Plot, literature, and other theatrical obstacles

If underwriting can under-serve narrative, the converse is not necessarily the case, as is demonstrated by “Tiger by the Tail,” the latest offering in the Wings Gay Plays series. In his epistolatory play, a tale of a frustrated and lonely middle-aged man who falls in love with a conniving but heartsick prisoner, playwright Frawley Becker requires his audience either to make huge leaps of logic or simply go with it.

I chose the latter course and so rather than gnashing my teeth over implausible plot points, I saw instead a rather sensitive, if sometimes overwrought, portrait of the search for intimacy, the challenges of aging, and the longings of the heart for connection in contemporary culture. Much of the impact of the heart of this play hinges on a device that it would be unfair to reveal, but the story of Jerry, a 45-year-old therapist, and Maynard, a 28-year-old prisoner, has an inherent sweetness that almost always overcomes Becker’s purple prose and all-too-obvious literary references.

The play examines how far an individual will go to make a connection, and how often the heart is immune to common sense. We will, in fact, create entire realities that have more to do with what we want and fear we can never have than what is happening in the world.

The production handily compensates for the play’s weaknesses with terrific performances by Steven Hauck as Jerry the older man, Matthew Wilkas as Maynard, the prisoner Jerry falls for, and Christian Rummel as The Criminal, who figures mostly in the second act.

Director Jules Ochoa wisely emphasizes subtext, and finds the reality of the characters’ voices even when the script seems a bit heavy handed. There’s a bit of staging—seemingly borrowed from Robert Allan Ackerman’s original 1979 production of “Bent”—that puts both men facing front and talking, but Ochoa does it twice, once in each act. It works here because we see how events have changed the men’s separate realities, and while it may be therapeutic to face those realities, matters of the heart may not be so easily resolved.

“A Safe Harbor for Elizabeth Bishop” has so much going for it on paper it’s a shame it never realizes its potential. Taking as its source the poetry and writing of Elizabeth Bishop, there is a wealth of passion and depth that Marta Góes never finds in her play. Indeed, the best parts are the poems themselves, and their lyrical economy.

It’s clear that Góes has tried to use this as a structural guide for her play, but instead of the compact and focused images Bishop delivers, this series of short scenes fails to match their emotional depth. And therein lies the difference between poetry and theater. In a poem, a single phrase can resonate to a reader’s soul; in the theater the audience needs to be taken on a journey that is a little more explicit. Poetry allows us to see into our own souls, while theater invites us to relate to a character. When that character is merely sketched, the journey is disappointing.

The story could be interesting, too. Bishop, a shy American poet visits Brazil and almost by accident meets and falls in love with Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares. The play chronicles their 20-year relationship from Bishop’s perspective. The details are there—love, passion, alcoholism, desire, loss—but what’s missing is how this created an artist. We get only the itinerary, none of the experience.

Nevertheless, Amy Irving as Bishop is charming and at times radiant. She is, however, a much more convincing romantic than alcoholic. Director Richard Jay-Alexander also never sufficiently builds Bishop’s emotional life, allowing Irving’s focus to wander from scene to scene, as does her relationship to the audience.

The set by Jeff Cowie is wonderful and painterly, making good use of projections, but even that moves too fast to keep up with the play, and the shortness of the scenes is often punctuated by the too-soon movement of the turntable.

Bishop, her poetry, and life are something we would want to relax with and revel in. Despite good ideas and excellent production values, this is a play that leaves us wanting more—in not giving us the heart, it loses the head.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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