As if to belie its own name, Hugh Leonard's "A Life," which opened last night at the Morosco, firmly refuses to come to life. In this new play, Drumm, the autocratic civil servant who admirably served his secondary purpose in Leonard's "Da," holds center stage, where he shrinks in interest.
Using the same device he employed so engagingly in "Da," that of superimposing the past on the present, Leonard has attempted to show us the sensitive man beneath the stiff exterior, the shy, superior youth who grew into the supercilious veteran. But the two, seen side by side in scenes that flow one into the other, are almost equally forbidding figures.
The older Drumm has just learned he has cancer and but six months to live. While his easygoing and loving wife Dolly goes home to prepare Sunday dinner, he visits the woman he really loved 40 years back but let slip into the warm arms of the useless but unquenchably jolly Larry Kearns.
As the playful, anguished past alternates with the aching present, we strangely feel nothing for these people. Even with the recurring strains of "Missouri Waltz," which was evidently on everybody's lips in Dublin at the time ("A Life" quite naturally takes place in the same small town outside Dublin that served as the setting for "Da"), the sought-after poignancy is missing, and without it there's no play.
An added, and equally important, difference is that with all the shifting back and forth in "Da," the character of the father, even as a ghost, remained a joyful embodiment of life. Drumm keeps questioning himself, bitterly mindful of breaking what he refers to as the 11th commandment, which has to do with not patronizing one's inferiors, but he remains an embodiment of small-town calcification.
Leonard's way with words hasn't deserted him, but his amusing aphorisms, casual insults both in the rough terms of Larry or polished statements of Drumm, and the generally easy flow of dialogue are largely wasted here.
Under Peter Coe's direction, leaden when it isn't merely mannered, Roy Dotrice delivers Drumm's acerbic remarks to good effect, but is unable to invest the character with any appeal or genuine interest. Pat Hingle is well cast as the blubbery Larry, or Lar, as he's repeatedly referred to. On the other hand, Aideen O'Kelly, with the only genuine brogue of the lot, has a tendency to pounce on her lines too quickly. Helen Stenborg is a winning Dolly.
As these people's younger selves, Adam Redfield, though not in the slightest resembling the older Drumm in looks, delineates the part skillfully and even with a hint of feeling, while Lauren Thompson as the young and pretty Mary, or Mibs,; David Ferry as the bumptious young Kearns, and Dana Delany as the winsome Dolly also perform attractively.
Robert Fletcher has provided a skeletal, wooden set serving for both indoor and outdoor scenes about town, much as the one for "Da" (by another designer) did, and it has been effectively lighted by Marc B. Weiss.
Drumm in "Da," and especially as set forth by Lester Rawlins, was a small gem. Leonard should have let well enough alone.
Some playwrights peak early. Others, particularly, if they have a genuine and unaffected sense of their craft, simply get better. Hugh Leonard is in that lucky - but obviously luck had nothing to do with it - second category.
His play A Life, which opened last night at the Morosco, is a gentle triumph of retrospection. Yes, it is replete with the kind of massaging platitudes that the Broadway theater demands and enjoys, quite exultantly, more than its fair share of mini-epigrams and tiny aphorisms.
Leonard is not Oscar Wilde. Come to think of it he is not even Bernard Shaw, but he has a gift for the blarney, and a gift for the particulary Irish wit - that vicious put-down with style that makes Dublin taverns so civilized - which is unmistakable and also in a strange way cozy. Irish literary and literate insults - in Dublin the two tend to co-mingle - have such a deftness to them that the insult is absorbed by the dexterity.
But Leonard is not here particularly writing a funny play. He is writing with a most generous and general compassion about a man's wasted life.
And the man was not a waster. He certainly made those kinds of rigid career decisions that must always turn out wrong. Moreover, he had acid running through his veins where his blood should have been. He also, not entirely though his own faults, married the wrong woman - or at least perhaps the wrong woman in his life, it is a issue sensibly kept open. The play is a spin-off from Leonard's earlier Da. It is both different and similar and probably better. There is a minor/major character in Da called Drumm.
Drumm was obviously meant to be a minor character in the story of a foster-son recreating and accepting the early pattern of his life through his foster-father's death. But the personage of Drumm, who was once the son's boss and later his peculiar belligerent adversary, became awesomely important in the play.
Partly it was the acting of Lester Rawlins - who won a Tony award for the performance - but even more it was because the man had simply gotten out of line with the concept of the play. The character, quite clearly, had taken over the playwright and frankly it was a flaw in Da. Leonard is clearly a man who uses flaws as launching pads.
Drumm's own story of gentle failure of a man incapable of coping with common or garden decencies, and finally realizing the limitations of his intelligence is fascinating. What Leonard has acquired as a playwright is an awareness of people, even of actuality.
The story is told at two levels - rather as in Da, Leonard has a liking for placing his story both in the past and the present. In A Life, he takes the technique of Da even further, and has a double set of characters. There are four young people and they are inter-cut with their elderly selves.
Peter Coe's direction in handling this fugue of two existence, is exceptionally fluid. It needed to be. It is also essential that the play possesses actors of unusual fluidity. They have been found.
Roy Dotrice's Drumm, a dying man looking back not in anger but regret is brilliant. Dotrice is an uncommonly intense actor - he lives the role rather than feels it - and here he has found the perfect part. As his younger self, Adam Redfield is also remarkable. A 20-year-old third-generation actor, I feel I can say nothing simpler, than that his father, the late William Redfield, would have been enormously proud of him.
It is a beautifully acted play. Pat Hingle is splendid as the complacently indulgent friend, and the older women, Aideen O'Kelly and Helen Stenborg, their younger selves, Dana Delany and Lauren Thompson, and David Ferry, Hingle's own younger ego, play out their role with a consistent sense of the hope and the value of life, and also its sad manner of self-destruction.
If Da was Leonard's testimony to life - and it was - then A Life is his testimony to death. But it has such warmth to it. It is a larger than life act of considerable understanding. It even quotes Yates. But even more important it quotes humanity.
In "A Life," which opened at the Morosco last night, the Irish playwright Hugh Leonard is asking us to spend an entire evening with a cold and disagreeable man. Mr. Leonard's hero, Drumm, is a tight-lipped small-town civil servant who reveres good grammar and punctuality, who looks down on his friends and family, and who faces death without ever having truly abandoned himself to love.
Drumm is variously described as a "bitter old pill" and a "dry old stick" - and such epithets are entirely apt. Yet I'll be damned if the playwright doesn't keep his pact with the audience. Though "A Life" is not a great play, it does indeed give us a great character. As written by Mr. Leonard and embodied by that fine British actor Roy Dotrice, Drumm is not only worth an evening; he's a man who ultimately commands our laughter, affection and compassion.
If you saw Mr. Leonard's "Da," you have met Drumm before. Played by Lester Rawlins on Broadway two seasons ago, he was the waspish school marmish fellow who gave Da's adopted son his first job. "A Life" contains a few references to that earlier play and uses a similar flashback structure, but it stands as a totally independent work. In this drama, Drumm is surrounded by new characters - a dutiful wife (Helen Stenborg), an old childhood flame (Aideen O'Kelly) and the old flame's boozy ne'er-do-well husband (Pat Hingle).
As is Mr. Leonard's wont, he has also provided all four people with young stand-ins for the evening's memory sequences. When the dying Drumm tries to add up his life's "debits and credits," his present-day conflicts always share the stage with the formative disappointments and heartbreaks of his past.
Mr. Dotrice dominates Mr. Leonard's lovingly detailed world of regret and sadness. Wearing spectacles and a nondescript three-piece suit, this actor creates a man who seems rigid and gray to a fault. Even when he snorts whiskey, his knees are firmly pressed together and his arms are tightly folded against his chest. His mouth is a long mailbox's slit, like that of the memorable Dickensian clerk Wemmick of "Great Expectations," and his dark eyes attest to 40 years spent poring through bureaucratic files.
But Drumm is also a literate wit, perhaps the only one, in a provincial Irish town that prizes conformist middle-class mediocrity. When Mr. Dotrice lets loose with a shrewdly timed wisecrack, his eyes begin to dance. Trapped within Drumm's drab body and sterile existence is an uncommonly fertile mind.
That mind finds its voice in some of Mr. Leonard's funniest lines to date. Nothing escapes Drumm's judgmental intellect and tart tongue - from distant relatives to the entire nation of Canada. Asked to enter a hospital, he refuses by announcing that "only a fool donates his body to medical science before death." Perplexed by a congenitally unemployed friend's lifelong prosperity, Drumm observes that "this man's continued survival without ever lifting a finger makes the mystery of the Holy Trinity look like a three-card trick."
The crusty Mr. Dotrice delivers these invariably delicious sallies with impish delight, but we soon learn that his epigrams cut both ways. "Cleverness is like a deformed hand," he explains while reflecting on his desolate childhood. "It's tolerated only as long as you keep a glove on it."
"A Life" is about the huge price its hero has paid for refusing to curb his genius for naysaying and truth-telling. By using intelligence as a shield, Drumm as cowardly isolated himself from both the pains and ecstasies of emotional contact. He lost the woman he most loved, slid into an impersonal marriage and alienated both would-be friends and fellow workers. In the play's most rending moments, Mr. Dotrice lets us see the real cancer - the spiritual one - that resides in Drumm's soul. As he stands on a bandstand and watches his priggish younger self retreat from passion into loneliness, his face turns red and his body nearly implodes in agony. Mr. Dotrice's delicate and unsentimental performance gives full and powerful expression to Mr. Leonard's portrait of a life that became a living death.
In Peter Coe's fluid staging, which unfolds on a properly autumnal if overly flimsy Robert Fletcher set, many of Mr. Dotrice's foils have a chance to shine, as well. As Mary, the woman who got away, Miss O'Kelly is a hearty survivor. We still can see the spark that captivated Drumm a generation earlier. As the man she married instead, Mr. Hingle is a beefy, beery pub crawler whose hilariously dimwitted demeanor cannot mask a redemptive generosity of spirit. There is also exceptionally good work from Lauren Thompson and Adam Redfield, whose young versions of Mary and Drumm bleed seamlessly into the characters' grown-up incarnations.
The sparrowlike Miss Stenborg is left stranded in the role of Drumm's cowed but wise wife; Mr. Leonard's portrait of the woman is overly sketchy. There are other lapses in the writing, too. For all his gifts of language and characterization, Mr. Leonard can be cavalier when it comes to the finer points of dramaturgy. "A Life" is sometimes plodding as it diagrammatically parallels past and present, and the second act too mechanically resolves Drumm's unfinished business.
There are also too many bald statements of the evening's message. When, in the final moments, Drumm tells us point-blank that his vanity has led him to have "standards" instead of friends, it's a deflating climax. One wishes that Mr. Leonard had found an elliptical way to sum up his hero's hard-won catharsis, and that his style of playwriting were a bit more artful and a bit less craftsmanlike.
These shortcomings don't damage the evening; they merely prevent the drama from rising to that grander level where it can transcend the sum of its part. But I think you'll find that those parts are easily reward enough. Out of the fragments of a small and humdrum life, Mr. Leonard and Mr. Dotrice have created "A Life" of memorable wit and feeling.