Wrong Mountain By David Hirson By the time this goes to press, David Hirson's Wrong Mountain, the only new nonmusical to open on Broadway this season, will already be under tremendous pressure to close. This is sad, not only because my expectations were extremely high for this second play by the author of the brave, smartly wacky and ill-fated La Bête, but also because the fault is clearly Hirson's this time. That deprives me of the pleasure of composing a jeremiad about the guardians of middlebrow normalcy who still pose as critics in our dailies and who sneered La Bête into financial oblivion in 1991 after 24 performances. Nine years ago, one couldn't help admiring the chutzpah of Hirson and company in bringing directly to Broadway a play of ideas not trivialized and speciously packaged like Peter Shaffer's?set in 17th-century France and written in heroic couplets, no less. Today, with a nonrhyming prose drama whose contemporary setting is only half-conceived, the choice of Broadway seems foolhardy and rash.
Wrong Mountain is about a bitter, unread and snobbishly arrogant poet named Henry Dennett, played by Ron Rifkin, who makes a $100,000 bet with his ex-wife's fiance, a popular Broadway playwright named Guy Halperin (Michael Winters), that he "could knock off a play and get it produced, all within six months." He makes clear, in silver-tongued tirades, that he has no respect for the theater, but in order to win the bet he endures the humiliation of a play competition and group development process at a provincial festival. Here, in the company of Davis' deliciously kindly and histrionic character Maurice Montesor, a troupe of actors and two other playwrights, Dennett displays the collaborative spirit of a leashed cat?until he drinks from a local, foul-smelling tourist attraction known as the "Lithia Fountain," and undergoes a miraculous transformation.
Much of this is dreadfully schematic and far-fetched, among other problems. Imperious Dennett accuses Halperin of spending his "entire life climbing the wrong mountain," then effortlessly scales that mountain himself without explaining why he would stoop to debate with such a "pornographer," much less try his craft. That craft?serious playwriting?is falsely presented as a viable and recognized path to riches and celebrity in America, even though Hirson's own deflating satire of the theater festival implies that he knows it isn't. What ought to be a real debate, fueling an action of ideas, about the nature of art-making never really rises above static monologue since the one character who stands up to Dennett intellectually (the young playwright Clifford Pike, played with touchingly confident timidity by Daniel Jenkins) effectively drops out of the action after his articulate challenge. Dennett, moreover, is drawn as such a myopic, overweening ass that, particularly in Rifkin's severe and overwrought portrayal, it's unimaginable that any self-respecting theater folks would put up with his abuse for five minutes.
All of this is very troubling. What keeps it from ruining the evening entirely, however, is Hirson's tongue-in-cheek tone, which infuses even the scenes that don't make any sense with a certain sparkle and heat. The furiously choleric Dennett, for instance, suffers from a 40-pound intestinal parasite (briefly seen at one point), which becomes particularly virulent when exposed to corn (get it?). This he learns from a doctor (splendidly played by Tom Riis Farrell) whose wonderfully droll absence of sympathy provides a hint of what a fully drawn dramatic foil for Dennett might look like ("Are you finished?" is his reaction to Dennett's howl of pain).
Hirson has a shrewd way of lifting up dull spots with priceless passing remarks, such as: "It's the kind of place where they tear down an old barn and build a new barn and hang a sign on it that says, 'Ye Olde Barne.'" Such bon mots, many made by Dennett's grown children, almost compensate for the tense, climactic family exchange that comes off as a feeble last-minute attempt to lend his character psychological depth. Hirson knows how to squeeze residual comic juice out of very old gags: Montesor works his way through a remarkable string of wrong names for Dennett, for instance, culminating in "Heinrich Himmler" and "Adolf Hitler." At one point, Orphan Annie and Maria from The Sound of Music appear out of the blue, for the sheer, pretension-puncturing fun of it?a bizarre and inspired bit of silliness that recalls the maid in La Bête who, with equally little justification, speaks only in monosyllables rhyming with "do."
Director Richard Jones keeps things moving as well as can be expected, given the proliferation of potholes and construction sites not marked in Hirson's road map. Similarly, the set (designed by Giles Cadle) contains a few funny visual one-liners?a section of a bookshop whose single, absurdly long shelf is marked "NEMATODES," for instance, and a statue of Lithia that looks like the Columbia Pictures lady in a corn-stalk crown?though it never strikes a strong, coherent note. Other noteworthy performances are given by Mary Schmidtberger as Winifred Hill, a festival playwright amusingly pumped full of paisley-print earnestness, and Bruce Norris as Dennett's son Adam, a convincingly inflexible version of the flexible father Hirson seems to think he wrote.
In any case, the most perplexing question this play raises is how the author of a work as subtly sophisticated as La Bête could fall into such elementary failures of sense and plausibility. For what it's worth, I offer this desultory speculation: La Bête deals with the discord in a famous French acting troupe after its aristocratic patron insists that a popular, ignorant and amazingly conceited street performer be accepted as a member. The presence of aristocratic authority thus solves myriad problems of circumstantial plausibility in that play, since fear of the aristocrat's reaction justifies almost anything, since Hirson's modern spectators know little about social details of the age, and since the whole play is spiced with nonrealistic anachronisms in any case. The rhyming couplets, delightful in their cleverness, are also a wonderfully reflexive device relating to the plot's main debate about self-conscious self-importance in art.
The contemporary circumstances of Wrong Mountain, by contrast, obligated Hirson to pay dues to the realism of situations his audience understood well, and he seems to have lost patience with this, apparently hoping that his quasi-farcical atmosphere would suffice as a general elixir. It won't, and the dialogue contains no cleverly reflexive flourishes (like, say, rhyme) to steer attention away from the plausibility problems and toward the creative act itself. The nearest approximation is the occasional inaccurate quotation or unacknowledged repetition of previously heard bits of eloquence by Dennett, Montesor and others?which comes off as an interesting if rudimentary attempt to deflate the idea of originality. Strangely enough, this piece, as it stands, suggests that classical form, with all its tactical distance and artificial constraints, may be Hirson's true metier and contemporary storytelling his "wrong mountain."
Eugene O'Neill Theater, 230 W. 49th St. (betw. 8th Ave. & B'way), 239-6200, through March 11.