A world-premiere play. A talented cast. Fabulous costumes and set design. Cool music to weave in and out of scenes. Arena Stage’s production of obscure American playwright Sophie Treadwell’s Intimations for Saxophone has all of the elements of a great show.
The last addition to the above list, sadly, is an incoherent script. Treadwell was a well-regarded playwright of her time (1920s-1930s), but had trouble finding a producer who was willing to commit to her project, reasons for which are clear. The script is a sprawling, grandiose mess that attempts to tackle huge issues with rather small means, an exercise in futility and ultimately frustration – similar to trying to explain sex to freshman boys.
Equally na?ve in her knowledge about sex is protagonist Lilly (Karron Graves). As a sheltered young woman who was raised in boarding school, her attitude towards new husband Gilly (Barney O’Hanlon) is a mix of trepidation and curiosity. However, her interest in him dwindles as she feels increasingly trapped in her marriage. “That’s the trouble with us, Gill,” she tells him as they get dressed for dinner. “Everything is too nice. Too smooth.” Lilly’s mental condition rapidly deteriorates and several characters stop by to offer diagnosis and remedies. The local doctor (Shawn Fagan, who shines in all of his bit roles) writes several prescriptions, Gill’s mother tells her she needs to find and accept God, and friend Millie (Makela Spielman) informs Lilly that her neuroses are a repressed sex drive. Millie also offers Lilly the advice that eventually cures her: “You must free yourself.”
While watching the talented Graves struggle to free herself with lines such as “the moon lies over the sea like a brilliant cloak,” the audience may wish to free themselves from their seats. (In fact, many audience members did just that during intermission and did not return to watch the second act.)
Given that this is a play with a musical instrument in the title, playwright Treadwell intended that the script be underscored by “an almost unbroken musical accompaniment.” However, director Anne Bogart makes the baffling decision to fill long scenes with chasms of silence.
Yet silence can also be used to great effect, as demonstrated by the opening scene. Intimations begins with a dapper man in a three piece suit walking into the four-sided Fichlander theatre (props to set designer Neil Patel, who has made excellent use of concentric squares that issue forth from the center like ripples) studying the audience, and settling into a small dark table with a red-shaded lamp. As the cast slinks in, the audience is treated to a delicious slice of 1920s costuming, thanks to costume designer James Schuette.
Outfitted in severe wigs and eye makeup, the women of the cast are all slender arms and shining beads, dazzling in their radiance. The men are just as lustrous, with the precise lighting (Christopher Akerlind) glinting off of their slick hair and bold pinstripes. Their hyper-stylized opening movements are echoed throughout the overlong production, broken only by intermittent dance sequences. Charming at first, these musical interludes lose their appeal as the production continues, and even though they are welcome breaks from tedious, meaningless dialogue, they become monotonous and meaningless as well.
Intimations has never been produced, until Arena Stage’s Senior Dramaturg Michael Kinghorn pulled out this work, dusted it off, and patched it together. However, just because something is old does not mean it’s worthy of praise, or even attention, as Arena’s production proves. Just because it’s buried doesn’t mean it’s treasure. Some stories are just not meant to be told.
Intimations for Saxophone runs through Feb. 27 at Arena Stage. Call (202) 488-3300 for tickets.