It might be reasonable to expect new American plays to be about America. These days, though, they tend to be about playwrights.
There is a crisis of confidence in American drama. And there is no more obvious mark of that crisis than David Hirson's lively but strangely agonized new comedy, "Wrong Mountain."
"Wrong Mountain" is certainly a fine new American drama. Without being a masterpiece, it is vivid, entertaining and at times genuinely funny.
But what is it about? Whether or not any serious writer would want to write a play for Broadway. Since Hirson has already answered the question by writing the play, this seems like something of a moot point.
The considerable energy and passion of Hirson's writing, in other words, is not directed outward at the world around him. It is directed inward, at the theater itself.
The central character, Henry Dennett, is a middle-aged but inescapably minor highbrow poet. His ex-wife has married a successful Broadway playwright, Guy Halperin. In his rage and jealousy, Dennett cannot contain his scorn. Broadway, for him, is "a macabre peep show for third-rate minds," aimed at "suburban know-nothings."
To show his contempt, he accepts a wager from Halperin that he can create a successful play in six months. And, of course, he does.
This, clearly, is an exercise in navel-gazing, presumably inspired by Hirson's own brief experiences on Broadway in 1991 with his only previous play, "La Bete."
But, at least for the first half of the play, Hirson turns out to have a surprisingly interesting navel. In Dennett, he has created a fascinating monster of bitterness, egomania and scorn. And in Ron Rifkin's fervently horrible portrayal, the character has the grim fascination of a 10-car pileup.
Rifkin brings to the role an eloquence that gives Dennett's ranting an almost operatic quality. He also deepens the character with quiet undertones of despair.
Hirson ratchets up the comedy by placing this spiteful intellectual terrorist in the midst of a touchy-feely new playwrights festival presided over by an aging English ham actor, played by the deliciously over-the-top Daniel Davis.
This allows for some predictable but well-aimed satire on theater types. But it also sets up a sharp debate between Dennett and an earnest young playwright, acutely played by Daniel Jenkins.
The pity is that Hirson is ultimately unable to bring off two maneuvers with which he tries to drive the plot forward.
One is rather heavy-handed symbolism involving a huge parasite that is growing inside Dennett and an old Indian spring from which he drinks the waters of success.
The other is Dennett's sudden transformation when he sees his play performed for the first time and discovers that he has actually written something worthwhile.
On the one hand, the crucial scene in which this happens is too flat and too compressed to have any real dramatic impact. We really need to see some of Dennett's play performed so that we can feel the transmutation for ourselves.
On the other hand, Dennett's bile has been so entertaining that we miss it when he turns nice.
And since Hirson seems unsure about his own conclusions, the play itself does not really conclude. It merely ends.
Yet, in Richard Jones' crisp and confident production, "Wrong Mountain" has the considerable virtue of never being dull. Even when it's not working, it still has the liveliness that comes from a playwright who actually cares about his subject.
Hirson may leave us halfway up the mountain, but even from there we can see that, when he turns his attention to the world around him, he should be able to reach impressive heights.
Whether you are clambering up or sliding down, if it's the wrong mountain it's bad news.
And that's the basic tidings from the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, where David Hirson's comedy "Wrong Mountain" opened last night.
Comedy is hard, and didactic comedy harder still. But didactic is what David Hirson is apparently attempting.
It seems that a very unfunny thing happened to Hirson on his way to the theater. He saw a play by Moliere and went for it hook, line and sinker. Wrong fish. Wrong time. Wrong move.
In 1991, Hirson's ambitious first play, "La Bete," was loosely based on Moliere's "The Misanthrope," its 17th-century plot didactically suggesting a moral lesson concerning high art and low entertainment.
It was written in Moliere-style rhymed couplets. It flopped.
"Wrong Mountain" is not set in the 17th century. It is not even in rhymed couplets. But all this helps less than you might have hoped.
And despite protestations to the contrary from the author, the moral of supposed art versus supposed entertainment appears oddly unchanged, though there seems to be a different conclusion this time.
Henry Dennett is a smugly self-satisfied prig and obscure poet with a huge ego. According to his weirdly comic physician, a huge parasitic worm is in Henry's intestines. No wonder he's mean.
Henry's wife has kicked him out of his home in favor of a hugely successful and obviously commercial Broadway playwright, Guy Halperin. After one of the ugliest Christmas dinners you have ever witnessed, Henry is challenged by Guy to write a play and get it produced on Broadway. The wager is $100,000.
That's the set-up. You can guess what happens. Which is always one of the troubles with didactic plays, isn't it? And believe me, you guessed right.
Now, what the unfortunate Hirson learned from Moliere was that serious comedy can be used as a vehicle for satire and social comment. Right.
Unhappily, Hirson never picked up Moliere's all-important second lesson, that comedy only works when it rings true. Hirson's Henry and all the other characters have no roots in the commonplace world.
No one actually acts as they act. No one actually talks as they talk. Sure, Moliere had his characters gabbing on in unlikely heroic couplets, but beneath that convention was always the bedrock of reality.
Consider Moliere's "Celimene and Alceste." These are people you could meet in the street. Today. Now.
Hirson should have a look at the way Alan Ayckbourn and Neil Simon characters talk and behave, or indeed Moliere or Ben Jonson or ... well, if it's dramatic education he's after, he has his pick, doesn't he?
Last time 'round with "La Bete," much of Broadway expressed itself horrified that so many critics dashed this young man's ambitions into the ground. And this may well happen again.
And while some performances are a little flashy, none is especially substantial. That usually subtle actor Ron Rifkin as the dyspeptic Henry rants his way through the play in a sort of speedy shout of bad temper. And the other leading actor, Daniel Davis, suffers most from Hirson's slap-happy and bombastic writing.
The rest of the cast, with the sole exception of Michael Winter, was unutterably awful. I thought the best performance of the evening came from a toy electric train, which unfortunately made only two appearances.
More train and less talk might have helped.
When Ron Rifkin turns red, the first impulse of any sane person is to duck. A red Ron Rifkin means that whatever character this fine actor is playing is erupting into a shower of venom, and it's a fearsome phenomenon.
Remembered most vividly as the irate publisher of Jon Robin Baitz's ''Substance of Fire,'' Mr. Rifkin is now exercising his spleen at the Eugene O'Neill Theater, and he can still throw a tantrum to singe the scenery. Somehow, though, the heat waves never get past the edge of the stage this time around. Playing an obscure poet of infinite bile in ''Wrong Mountain,'' David Hirson's windy, satiric fable of the contemporary theater, the lean-faced Mr. Rifkin looks just right, like a David Levine caricature in The New York Review of Books, all wiry lines, pinched nostrils and academic forehead.
Unfortunately, Mr. Levine's drawings have more flesh on them than Mr. Hirson's characters do. Even in highest dudgeon, Mr. Rifkin can't disguise that what he is portraying is a walking, screaming sheaf of ideas, meant to be weighed against other sides of an open, unsolvable debate. And by the evening's end, after his character has gone through some imposed, magical reversals, Mr. Rifkin seems more or less to have given up. You can't blame him.
Adventurous new plays of ideas are rare on Broadway. Actually, make that new plays period, since ''Wrong Mountain'' is the only one running at the moment. What's more, it's a play about the theater, something for which Mr. Hirson clearly has a lively if complicated passion, informed by hard experience (he is the author of the 1991 cult flop ''La Bete'') and a healthy gift for seeing all sides of an issue.
So it would be especially satisfying to embrace ''Wrong Mountain,'' which tells the story of how Mr. Rifkin's pedantic poet disdainfully enters (and wins) a playwriting contest on a bet. Yet under the distancing direction of Richard Jones, who collaborated to more virtuosic effect with Mr. Hirson on ''La Bete,'' the work gives the overall impression of a very thin organism with a big set of lungs. It screams, it rants, it talks itself blue; but it finally fails to engage those watching it, even when it is insulting them.
Like ''La Bete'' -- a Molieresque comedy set not only in the 17th century but also in rhyming couplets -- ''Wrong Mountain'' is built around the destructive presence of a human juggernaut. But whereas that figure in ''La Bete'' was a philistine in a rarefied theatrical world, Mr. Rifkin's character, Henry Dennett, is a self-proclaimed aesthete in a world of philistines.
Cultural mediocrity is to him what Communism was to Joseph McCarthy. He sees it lurking everywhere, even in the form of an admiring young poet who ill-advisedly asks Henry for his autograph in a bookshop. The greatest object of his wrath, however, is the contemporary theater -- an arena, not incidentally, in which Guy Halperin (Michael Winters), the fiance of Henry's ex-wife (Beth Dixon), has become a fat success.
You may find yourself pausing before the quaint idea of the American theater today as an avenue to mainstream success. (Has it made a household name out of anyone in recent years, except possibly, thanks to Disney, Julie Taymor?)
Still, the rancorous Henry isn't the most clearsighted of fellows. At a family Christmas gathering, he excoriates Guy's profession for producing ''the kind of sanctimonious kitsch that's embraced as high art by an audience of suburban morons dimwitted enough to believe that by going to a play they're having some sort of 'cultural experience.' ''
Such provocations lead to Henry's bet that he can get a play produced in six months' time, which in turn leads him to an exurban theater festival overseen by the florid, fatuous and ultimately rather touching Maurice (Daniel Davis, in the evening's one performance to win over the audience).
There, Henry continues to advance his disdainful theories, most articulately in the presence of an awkward but intelligent young playwright (nicely played by Daniel Jenkins), who diffidently but firmly bests the older man on his own terms. At the same time, Henry drinks from a mystic fountain that will turn him into everything he despises.
To his credit, Mr. Hirson refuses to slant his debates. The problem is that neither he nor Mr. Jones makes those arguments dramatically compelling or even, for that matter, much fun. The equal-opportunity satire ranges from portrayals of the competitive intellectualism within Henry's family (Ilana Levine and Bruce Norris play the son and daughter for whom sneering is a conditioned reflex) to the touchy-feely antics of the provincial theater troupe.
The comedy is scattershot, often glancing off its targets. There are a couple of laugh-out-loud moments during the theater festival scenes, especially when the actors introduce themselves to Henry. ''Thank you for your anger,'' says one of them, while another presents herself saying, ''I shall have the great, great honor to read the role of the Seahag.''
That Seahag line is priceless, a dead-on rendering of actorly inflation. But it isn't heartening to know that it is, for me at least, the evening's high point. Like the last new comedy to open on Broadway, ''Epic Proportions'' (which has since closed), ''Wrong Mountain'' has enough funny material to create a lively television sketch, but not much more.
Many of the jokes are bizarrely on the level of second-tier sitcoms, like the business of having Maurice always getting Henry's name wrong. Such facile bits are out of whack with the show's more outrageous comic elements, including that symbolic 40-foot worm that has taken up residence in Henry's intestine.
For all its conscious audacity, there is a strange uncertainty about the tone of ''Wrong Mountain'' that Mr. Jones hasn't managed to translate into a consistent style. Giles Cadle's sets are cartoonish without being especially witty, and the performers have trouble negotiating the sharp turns from parody into sentimentality.
Toward the end of the first act, Henry, still ranting about theatergoers, declaims, ''They go to bask in the flattering image of themselves as people who are open enough to have their values challenged, which is just another way of saying that they go to the theater to have their values confirmed.''
Point taken. But for theater to pierce an audience's complacency, it needs to have a vigor, sharpness and authority that ''Wrong Mountain'' never quite musters. You can't, after all, pierce the skin with a blunt instrument.
Weird is the word for "Wrong Mountain," a pompous spitball of a play aimed squarely at the eye of its audience. The arrival on Broadway of a comedy whose protagonist spends a fair amount of its running time orating on the puerility and vacuousness of commercial theater is certainly a rich irony, and it will likely prove to be a very expensive one for the show's producers. That "Wrong Mountain" is the first Broadway production to open in the new century, and the first "serious" new American play of this Broadway season, only deepens the sense of strangeness -- and eventually despair -- you feel as you watch its author, David Hirson, so enthusiastically and so artlessly flogging what is dangerously near to being a dead horse anyway.
If Hirson's attack on the debased state of theater came in the form of a play of real humanity or fresh insight, the self-righteousness of "Wrong Mountain" might be bracingly medicinal, but it's a shrill, simplistic and rather muddled play, not so much a drama as a series of self-conscious, high-handed screeds, snipes and debates adorned with a few stray dollops of redemption.
Hirson's first and only previous play, "La Bete," was a notorious Broadway flop in 1991. Acclaimed by some critics but panned by the New York Times, it closed after 24 performances, only to become a cause celebre when various showbiz luminaries came to its defense. "Wrong Mountain" is not written in verse, as was "La Bete," and it is not set in the 17th century, but its themes are essentially the same, and it is marked by the same impressive verbal facility. Both concern the struggle of the artist to maintain integrity in a world where only the vulgar can succeed, but while Elomire, the actor-playwright of "La Bete," stood fast against the barbarians at the gate, Henry Dennett (Ron Rifkin), the poet and protagonist of "Wrong Mountain," decides to beat them at their own game.
Over an astonishingly unpleasant Christmas dinner that sets the keynote for far too much of the play, the artistically respected nonentity Henry spars with his ex-wife Claire's new fiance, the fabulously popular playwright Guy Halperin (Michael Winters).
While his intellectual snob kids egg him on and the bitchy Claire taunts him, the smug-but-smart Henry proceeds to eviscerate the smug-but-dumb Guy, rolling out carefully scripted insults at the folks on the other side of the footlights (that's us, the "suburban know-nothings"), and deriding theater as "sanctimonious kitsch" and "a macabre peep show for third-rate minds eager to have their sympathies titillated and their sense of humanity massaged by the dime-store imaginings of second-rate minds."
That's just for starters, really, and to prove just how facile the business of playwrighting is, Henry bets that within six months he can write a play and get it produced. "I could toss off a piece of pornography like that before I finished my first wank in the morning!" is how Henry, the highbrow versifier, actually puts it.
As played with dogged nastiness by Rifkin, Henry is such an outlandishly repellent man that it's clear we're not meant simply to sympathize with him. He's a sick guy, this Henry, infected with a gruesome intestinal worm symbolizing some far deeper malaise -- though if we fail to chuckle at his endless, noxious witticisms, we risk being classified among the "whinnying blockheads" too dim to see the truth in his analysis of American culture, heavy-handed as it is.
Although Henry's cruelty and superciliousness are so exaggerated as to be intentionally off-putting, it's hard not to believe his contempt for today's theater is shared by his creator. At the regional theater where Henry's play is one of three finalists in a competition, we meet a host of ludicrously portrayed drama enthusiasts, led by the preening Maurice Montesor (Daniel Davis), an effeminate actor with a bad dye job readying to play Romeo at a pathetically advanced age. Also on hand are various fatuous actors ripe for Henry's (and our) scorn.
But under the influence of the mysterious waters he quaffs from a local fountain, Henry begins succumbing to the worldly blandishments of flattery and camaraderie and success. In the end, in fact, the lucky fellow gets to have things every which way! By the time he's won the now-coveted prize and humiliated Guy by his easy mastery of the dramatic form, Henry is on the other side of the debating table, arguing with equally vituperative eloquence against the elitism he'd been espousing only minutes before.
When his son turns his words against him, dismissing his play as "crap," Henry rails, "I'm sorry I invited you! You and the rest of the Art Police, for whom nothing can ever be worthy unless it's obscure!" When did he turn in his badge?
That Henry can move so smoothly from one pole to another on this cultural debate -- fancy water or no fancy water -- indicates that Hirson hasn't created a plausible character but rather a mouthpiece for flashily written diatribes. Hirson has said that his play is not to be viewed as a referendum on theater or even art but on more personal questions. But for a play to seriously engage such themes as "coming to terms with who you actually are" and "what is a good life," as Hirson has suggested "Wrong Mountain" aims to, it must first be about actual people.
"Wrong Mountain" isn't. Its characters are about as human as the performers in porn movies, to borrow Henry's favorite metaphor for theater. When they are not merely buffoons, all speak in some variation on the informed and adroit voice of their author. This provides for some elegantly phrased debates, to be sure, but these grow wearying quickly. David Hare covered some of this territory with far more finesse and feeling in "Amy's View," and even Richard Greenberg's sour "Hurrah at Last" painted its portrait of the artist as a young misanthrope in more empathetic strokes.
Indeed, despite a few redeeming moments granted to Henry and the flamboyantly silly Maurice, there's something ugly at the heart of this play: Hirson seems to divide humanity into the repellent and the ridiculous. Only to a couple of underwritten minor players can our sympathy be respectably extended: Maurice's daughter Ariel and the competing playwright Clifford. How do we know they're the good guys? Because they recognize Henry's quotations from Auden and Strindberg and Wilde. (The play is lousy with erudition: You could fill several syllabuses -- or is it syllabi, Henry? -- with the literary names dropped in these two acts.)
Aside from Davis' professional scene-stealing as the grandiloquently silly Maurice and Rifkin's convincingly confused Henry, the large cast of talented comic actors has little to do. Richard Jones' direction doesn't succeed in masking the play's schematic and disjointed feeling, while Giles Cadle's sets manage to look both overscaled and dwarfed by the large O'Neill proscenium.
Some of Hirson's aesthetic positions are obviously unassailable, but they're not exactly news. Yes, Broadway is in a bad way, as anyone who's heard anything about "Saturday Night Fever" knows. Yes, mediocrity sells, and art doesn't pay the bills. But "Wrong Mountain" leaves the heart just as untouched, the soul just as parched, as do the money-making mega-musicals down the block. Henry Dennett would doubtless sneer at the trendy catch phrase, but one is nevertheless inclined to tell Mr. Hirson that if he's not part of the solution, he's part of the problem.