If you were passing through some small town in Kentucky and saw the local university theater department's "The Kentucky Cycle," you might think the young people had done a good job tying together certain themes in the history of their state.
You wouldn't judge it on a professional level because it wouldn't seem appropriate. You might question whether it was worth sitting through six hours of mechanical, rhetorical writing and acting to learn so little about American history, but you would admire the students for trying to shape the 200-year history of a region into a play with mythic resonance.
Alas, "The Kentucky Cycle" is not a student production. It arrives in New York with the imprimatur of several regional theaters, not to mention the 1992 Pulitzer Prize. All this makes its hollowness even more depressing. If it were a student prodution it might have an innocence that might make its sententiousness more bearable.
Robert Schenkkan's play begins in 1775 with an Irish settler outwitting a group of American Indians, who a narrator informs us portentously, were "taught lessons in perfidy by the master of the trade."
The settler is played by Stacy Keach, who goes on to play a succession of thugs whose rapaciousness and bloodthirstiness are barely concealed by Keach's bluff hearty manner and his expansive smile. In this vision of American history fathers are never reluctant to betray or even murder their sons, and vice versa.
The early-dastardliness is literal-minded. The later betrayals are subtler though no less destructive. In one sequence, for example, a father who is a labor leader compromises with shifty management on mine safety precautions, thus - knowingly or not - sacrificing a son who wanted to follow in his old man's footsteps.
In Part One, which takes us to the early Civil War, the play at least offers a bit of exoticism, an Indian maiden here, some slaves there. By Part Two, Schenkkan concentrates on the mining industry, with a lengthy sequence about the growth of unions. This is material we have seen in innumerable films, all of which are far more moving. In a bow to current fashions, Schenkkan has a moment where the beleaguered miners are ready to give up and are somehow rallied back to the task by their womenfolk banging on pots and pans.
The play covers 200 years, but rarely with a sense of period. (I suspect, for example, that "piss off" was not commonly used in 1890.) The play's strongest impression is pastiche. You're constantly aware of what playwright (Odets, Miller) Schenkkan has used as a model for this scene or that. A long scene in Part One, in which a villainous landlord strips a man of all his property and dignity, sounds like a piece of 19-century melodrama.
The acting ranges from creditable to amateurish. Visually the production is effective if not thrilling.
Is Schenkkan's historical vision truthful? Yes. Is our history nevertheless far more complex and poetic? Yes. Do we need the theater to give us a version of our history smaller and more meanspirited than its actually? I don't think so.
Three interrelated families observed over two centuries, six or so hours, a dinner break, eight plays, 60 or so characters, 21 actors - virtually everything about Robert Schenkkan's "The Kentucky Cycle" loudly whispers from the rooftops the tantalizing dramatic conception: "EPIC!"
And certainly it suggested that there was more than one marathon being run in New York yesterday. But the strange thing is that this play, which opened yesterday at the Royale Theater, has more, and I say this with respect, the air of a TV miniseries than an epic.
Two years ago the work acquired that semi-cultural Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, the Pulitzer Prize. Still it is more Arthur Hailey than Eugene O'Neill, and in some respects little the worse for that. Epic theater, even while winning brownie points for aspiration, can be extraordinarily trying.
Take this "Kentucky Cycle" too solemnly as high art and you might be disappointed. But take it as entertainment, as writing that has no particular profundity other than the text of a good yarn and the subtext we ourselves can bring to it, and you should have a good time.
It will be a good time vastly enhanced by Warner Shook's strong, clear and spare staging, and the magnificent (truly magnificent) acting of that big ensemble cast, in which a superhuman Stacy Keach (in a variety of roles) gives the most mesmerizing and compelling performance Broadway has seen in years.
At its best - particularly the first half - it is the theatrical equivalent of a "good read," its storytelling is unputdownable, and, apart from a few longeuers after the first four hours, I found myself fascinated by this blood-and-guts saga of a family feud resembling the Hatfields and McCoys shoved into a seriously historical context.
The main family is the Rowens - whose fortunes are laid and character molded by Michael Rowen, an 18th-century Irish immigrant, expert in murder and treachery who also has a lust for land. The family is part Cherokee, just as another family, the African-American Biggs have white (indeed Rowen) blood. The third family, the Talberts, appears to be Appalachian hillbilly.
It is the dark brutality of Michael Rowen and the raw hatred existing between the Rowens and the Talberts that keeps the first 86 years and 180 minutes spinning along, from genocide to the War Between the States, bating our very breath as we spin along with them.
After that dinner break Schenkkan's concept loses steam and focus, although his theme still has potential. We move to rapacious industrialization, and the blackening of green Kentucky, changing in three generations from a oak-treed Eden to slate-like hills corrosively strip-mined.
Here, the crispness of the writing, the pell-mell push of incident, deserts him. Suddenly we are disconcertingly Waiting for Lefty with a Coalminer's Daughter, as the playwright punches all the right/left liberal buttons with the punctiliousness of a worker with a time clock.
Even then the play rarely bores - and it acquires a kind of patina-in-depth from the portrayal of successive generations as actors play their own sons and grandsons, daughters and granddaughters. Here is a rich tapestry of familial continuity and reconciliation - a family album captured on history's video.
Remember plot? In the often absorbing first half of "The Kentucky Cycle," a six-hour, two-part saga about 200 years of Kentucky history, Robert Schenkkan delights in the kind of robust, jam-packed narrative that the modern theater long ago ceded to movies and television. Settlers battle with Injuns, parents with children, husbands with wives, families with their neighbors, the North with the South. No one hesitates to use a gun, on relatives and strangers alike. A character presumed dead can come back to life at the most dramatically exquisite moment. Two grown boys who seem to have no genealogy in common can abruptly turn out to be long-lost brothers.
As Thelma Ritter, playing a backstage dresser in "All About Eve," once said of another tall Broadway tale: "What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snapping at her rear end!"
Mr. Schenkkan's theatrical dreams are larger still. "The Kentucky Cycle," which opened at the Royale yesterday, believes that the stage can still accommodate a work with scores of characters (played by 21 actors) and thematic ambitions that embrace the entire history of the country. By telling the story of three intersecting families in a small, impoverished patch of eastern Kentucky from the dawn of the Revolution in 1775 to 1975, the author wishes to erect an epic of the failure of the American dream. The beautiful, unsullied piece of land where an indentured Irishman, Michael Rowen (Stacy Keach), settles in the play's opening scene is steadily soiled by blood feuds and racial conflict, then pillaged by capitalist greed until finally it is nothing more than a polluted wasteland, a ghost town.
Given this noble purpose, not to mention the time and space the play occupies, I wish I could add that "The Kentucky Cycle" offered either one startling insight into American history, one original turn of phrase, one novel theatrical moment or one character of tragic size who is deeply moving as an individual rather than as a generic representative of some sociopolitical development. But I can't. "The Kentucky Cycle" is best enjoyed as a melodramatic pageant, and an entertaining one until it turns pedagogical when its story reaches the 20th century early in Part 2. The winner of a 1992 Pulitzer Prize, this work has less in common with those Pulitzer plays that try to stretch the imagination while taking the pulse of American civilization (from "Our Town" to "Buried Child") than with those like "State of the Union" and "J. B." that lend themselves to methodical parsing in the classroom.
"The Kentucky Cycle" is actually nine individually titled one-act plays related by bloodlines, a smart device that liberates Mr. Schenkkan to leap over decades when he wants, sometimes to delicious effect. It is fun to watch actors play their own grown children and grandchildren as the years fly by. The fun is not unalloyed, however, because the playwright is sincerely committed to his dark take on the corruption and despoilment of America. In some of the more powerful scenes, a husband (Mr. Keach) courts a Cherokee bride (Lillian Garrett-Groag) with racial and sexual violence, and a Confederate soldier (Tuck Milligan) joins the massacres led by William Clark Quantrill in Lawrence, Kan. When Mr. Keach, as a later Rowen descendant, is villainously reduced to sharecropping his own ancestral land, or, as a still later Rowen, sells out cheaply to the barons of strip mining, Mr. Schenkkan's long cycle of vengeance and betrayal achieves a true theatrical arc.
But it was more than a half-century ago on Broadway that Lillian Hellman in "The Little Foxes" divided America into "the people who eat the earth and eat all the people on it" and "other people who stand around and watch them eat it." Mr. Schenkkan has nothing to add in historical detail or unorthodox thought to that now-standard liberal view of the American chronicle, yet he retails its most familiar points unadorned, with the naivete of a virgin breathlessly recounting his first visit to a whorehouse. He seems to have discovered only yesterday that the white man's treatment of the Indians and their land can be equated with Standard Oil's rape of the same territory several generations later. Part 2 of "The Kentucky Cycle" presents the rise and fall of labor unions in dioramas as totemic as the panels on a W.P.A. mural.
Even if one often agrees with Mr. Schenkkan's views, as I do and much of a New York audience will, the knee-jerk predictability with which he hammers them in flattens the play's drama into predictability as well. Once you realize that the cycle's men all tend to be ruthless scoundrels and the women mostly noble, that almost all white people and rich people are bad and all representatives of minority groups are victims, your mind shifts into P.C. autopilot. You sense where every scene is going well before it gets there, and guess the function of every pawn the second he first opens his mouth. (Typically, the moment a new character gives his name as Abe Steinman at the mining camp in the 1920's, we know he is the Jewish Labor Organizer, and we know exactly what will happen to him.)
If Mr. Schenkkan animated these types with arresting language, perhaps they would not pall so quickly. But the dialogue in "The Kentucky Cycle" is that of a high-grade mini-series. When the characters are not using prefab regional boilerplate (can all variations on the phrase "that dog won't hunt" be retired from American discourse?), they speak in intelligent, impersonal prose that lacks any distinctive voice and is more concerned with conveying the story and themes than revealing human intimacies. "It ain't just dirt," begins one characteristic signposting speech. "It's land. It's a living thing." Or: "I learned early blood is just the coin of the realm." Or: "I bring news. We're a state -- a full member of the United States." The script's various bibilical allusions and mechanically deployed metaphors (an old oak tree, a watch that is the Rowens' undying heirloom), like the author's quotes from Aeschylus, Frantz Fanon and T. S. Eliot in the Playbill, do not lend the writing either epic mythos or psychological depth by osmosis.
In the entire play, only one character has an interior life beyond what he appears to be at first blush and behaves surprisingly, as if he had a free will untethered to the playwright's moral: a con man (superbly played by Gregory Itzin) who dominates "Tall Tales," the lively play that opens Part 2 on what proves to be a false high. (The anomalously spontaneous "Tall Tales" was, intriguingly, the first of the nine plays of the cycle that Mr. Schenkkan wrote.) At the other extreme are the stock black characters, symbolic ciphers one and all, who are as disfranchised by their perfunctory lines as they are by slavery.
Because no one in the cast is required to sustain a single role for more than a hour or so, and because many of the roles are minor variations on their ancestral predecessors, "The Kentucky Cycle" is more of a showcase for its actors' energy than for their range. Mr. Keach, whose blunt masculine vigor increasingly recalls Robert Preston's, is particularly forceful, whether as a frontier varmint or the very image of a corrupt, overfed union official of the 1950's. Along with him and Mr. Itzin, the other standouts include Mr. Milligan, as a variety of young idealists, and Jeanne Paulsen, as a mine-country Ma Joad.
Warner Shook's staging, always swift and efficient, invites comparisons to "Nicholas Nickleby" with its bare-bones environmental setting, omnipresent cast and occasional story-theater staging techniques. But the comparisons will be taken seriously only by those theatergoers who did not see or don't remember the magical, cinematic choreography with which Trevor Nunn and his company coursed through the entire house in that Dickensian marathon. In Mr. Shook's show, the action is often downstage front and center, with the impressive exception of the mine disaster sequences. Frances Kenny's brown and gray costumes are rigorously drab; Michael Olich's set, dominated by antiseptic industrial pipes, and James Ragland's ominous incidental music are both grimly utilitarian. Peter Maradudin's inventive lighting, by contrast, offers more ambiguous shades of gray than much of "The Kentucky Cycle" in delivering its author's passionately held vision of an American paradise lost.
If a Tony were awarded for ambition, tenacity and conviction, no one would deny playwright Robert Schenkkan, director Warner Shook and producer David Richenthal a prime shot at the honor. When Schenkkan's sprawling "Kentucky Cycle" won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in April 1992, there was no New York production in the offing, and none of the usual Broadway players was willing to gamble on an overwhelmingly grim nine-play, six-hour work spanning two centuries of violent eastern Kentucky history, regardless of its enthusiastic reception at Seattle's Intiman Theater and Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum.
It took a driven producer -- a novice at that, with just one Off Broadway production notch on his belt -- along with $ 2 million and the hoped-for star draw of Stacy Keach to finally bring "The Kentucky Cycle" to New York. That's what producing should be about.
Of course, theatergoers don't buy intentions, no matter how honorable. Even if all six hours of "The Kentucky Cycle" made for a transcendent experience -- even if it merely made for gripping but consistently entertaining theater -- it would still require an enormous act of faith on the part of audiences, requiring two evenings or a full-day marathon, at a top price of $ 100.
And while several acts in "The Kentucky Cycle" churn with a documentary power , they're submerged in a work remarkable for the crudeness of its writing and staging and the wide variability of the performances.
So while critical reception will surely be mixed, word of mouth will inevitably be that the show doesn't justify the stiff commitment of time and money. It will have a rough time surviving the holiday period.
Beginning in 1775, Schenkkan spins out the stories of three families across 200 years, from the European conquest of the Cumberland frontier to the usurpation of the land by Northern business and its disastrous effect on both the gentle land and its ungentle inhabitants. It's a history of violence breeding violence, of the repeated smashing of dreams by ever more distant forces.
The central family patriarch is Michael Rowen (Keach), a self-described "necessary animal" cunning enough in the first two parts to stake a piece of Cherokee land and brutally take a Cherokee wife (Lillian Garrett-Groag), who bears him a son (Scott MacDonald) he fears and a daughter he murders at birth.
The son marries Rebecca Talbert (Katherine Hiler), whose neighboring family figures next in this chronology. But as it happens, Michael has fathered another son, Jesse (Ronald William Lawrence), by Sallie Biggs (Gail Grate), a slave purchased in Louisville for $ 37, and the Biggses become the third family tree followed.
The first half of "The Kentucky Cycle" concerns the sins of the father being visited upon the sons; here are murder, infanticide, patricide and many lesser forms of family betrayal, as well as a humiliating twist in which the Talberts gain ownership of the Rowen homestead and Michael and his family are forced to become sharecroppers on their own land.
Whether or not these scenes are representative of others playing out on neighboring homesteads, the effect ultimately is small-scale: a private feud that's colorful but not endlessly engaging.
The advent of the Civil War brings with it a change that forces the three families onto a much larger stage. At the start of the second part, beginning in 1890, J.T. Wells (Gregory Itzin) has come to the area, proclaiming himself a storyteller -- he is splendid in putting over "Romeo and Juliet" as a local tale -- but who is in fact a lackey for coal interests buying "mineral rights" cheap from the descendants of Michael Rowen, with ruinous consequences.
In these, the play's two most riveting sections, both the land and the people who work it become victims of forces so far beyond their ken that they don't stand a chance against them.
It's no longer a matter of Hatfields and McCoys, but of ignorant bumpkins being squashed by robber barons, then being roused by the likes of Mother Jones (Garrett-Groag) to the formation of the United Mine Workers union.
These two plays, "Tall Tales" and "Fire in the Hole," could well stand alone; their power must recall the adrenaline rush felt by audiences at Group Theater performances in the '30s. Unfortunately, they're followed by two numbingly boring sections set in 1954 and 1975 and dealing with union-vs.-mining politics and the various corruptions that further poison the families. A final scene that attempts to bring the cycle full-circle falls completely flat.
The production design (Michael Olich, sets, and Peter Maradudin, lighting) is in the Open Theater tradition: a bare, raked stage, with the actors sitting around a perimeter bisected by an underutilized ramp, none of which is well-suited to the Royale. The show cries for a thrust stage and greater intimacy with the audience.
Under Shook, the performances are a mishmash of styles ranging from warmly ingratiating to arch and declamatory -- but those qualities describe the writing , as well. It ranges from occasionally poetic to more frequently stilted, and for long passages the play just stops dead in its tracks. Cliches abound.
Keach brings a needed self-assurance and occasional humor to the proceedings. Standout players include Itzin, whose smooth-talking storyteller seems to have strolled in from "Appalachian Spring," Hiler as the young women, Grate and Lawrence as the slave mother and son, and Garrett-Groag as many of the Rowens and, later, Mother Jones. Much of the acting from the ensemble, however, is serviceable at best.
Given a stronger ending -- one that actually wrapped up these interwoven family histories -- the earlier shortcomings of "The Kentucky Cycle" might not be as glaring as they are. As it is, the play ends with Michael Rowen's great-great-great-grandson as much in the dark about life as his ancestor. Inevitable this may be, but it's not terrifically edifying.