Barbara eda-Young and Jenny Bacon inCarson McCullers (Historically Inaccurate)(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Barbara eda-Young and Jenny Bacon in
Carson McCullers (Historically Inaccurate)
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
The title of Sarah Schulman's new play, Carson McCullers (Historically Inaccurate) indicates some of what Schulman is up to with her dramatized consideration of the late writer's life and literature. The parenthetical phrase admits that Schulman is playing fast and loose with the facts about Lula Carson Smith McCullers, whose 1940 novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and 1950 play The Member of the Wedding put her on the map of American authors to be reckoned with. (In the Modern Library's list of 100 best 20th-century novels, Lonely Hunter appears at #17.) But Schulman's seemingly forthright title might have included an additional parenthetical phrase: (Dramaturgically Inept).

The playwright, who's had a lot to say about the work as part of the pre-opening promotional efforts, has stated that she's intrigued by two things: McCullers' having been a difficult person to deal with and the fact that she turned out literature remarkable for its understanding of, and compassion for, marginalized people and peoples. The intention of Schulman's play, which is divided into 16 impressionistic segments, is to follow the tantrum-prone, alcohol-disposed, gender-confused, stroke-afflicted McCullers (or a more generic group of creators whom Schulman has chosen her to represent) through a life that paradoxically spiraled downward and upward at the same time.

At one informative point, the McCullers character, played by Jenny Bacon, explains that she "writes scenes, little moments and details" that eventually add up to something trenchant and illuminating. The comment may be Schulman's hint that she's doing the same. By the time she arrives at the last line of the last scene--with McCullers dying in a hospital bed while a fan reads aloud from the 23rd Psalm--she may have wanted to have accumulated enough persuasive material for audiences to have an epiphany about the shocking discrepancy between an artist's day-to-day life and the products of her imagination.

If that was Schulman's wish, it has not been granted. In unleashing her McCullers and the people whom she knew intimately (or maybe didn't), Schulman has set a hot-tin-roof cat among some mighty vague pigeons. Having researched McCullers, she has then taken dramatic license to fill the wordsmith's mouth with words on the following subjects: her childhood expectations of greatness; her attraction and eventual betrayal of James Reeves McCullers; her friendships with mid-century Manhattan literati like Tennessee Williams, Richard Wright, and Gypsy Rose Lee; the original production of The Member of the Wedding, starring the plain-speaking Ethel Waters; Reeves' suicide; McCullers' declining years and death at 50. As these folks go about chatting among themselves, Schulman lets fly more flat-footed lines than you can shake a blue pencil at. "You have made me jealous of me," Gypsy Rose Lee blurts at one startling moment. Huh? Wh-a-a-t?

And so the little scenes remain little, as McCullers insists she's a boy and troops around in the mannish togs supplied by costume designer Toni-Leslie James. The vignettes of the play refuse to fuse, merely following one another with annoying impertinence. They are impoverished and puzzling. In the first sequence, 14-year-old McCullers is shown smoking with her encouraging mother. In the next she's having a hissy fit because a favorite piano teacher is moving out of their Columbus, Georgia hometown. In the next she's enjoying, or trying to enjoy, her wedding night.

In one later vignette, McCullers throws a birthday party for Reeves at which Gypsy Rose Lee emerges from a big cake and does a routine. In the following scene, McCullers and Gypsy flirt, to no avail. And, in a scene that may be the most appalling of this entire theatrical season, an actress called Sandy, who's playing the autobiographical Frankie in The Member of the Wedding (in reality, Julie Harris made her name with the role), comes to dinner with McCullers and spouse but perversely refuses to eat. Perhaps the liberties McCullers takes here explain why she doesn't use Harris's name. (Schulman does have Ethel Waters appear--or someone whom she calls Ethel Waters but who bears little resemblance to the late, great trouper.)

So carried away is Schulman with the freedom she's granted herself to treat McCullers the way no one should treat a dog that she composes her own version of The Member of Wedding; thereby, of course, she demonstrates the gap between her abilities as a dramatist and McCullers'. She also lays bare her arrogance in recklessly appropriating someone's life to make a psychological point (not a new one, at that) and assuming that this is fair practice. It seems unarguably true that McCullers was a trial to herself and her friends, but is it possible that her actions and interactions were so relentlessly monstrous as they are depicted here? Talking to Jonathan Mandell in The New York Times, Schulman says of Carson McCullers: "It's historically inaccurate....It's emotionally accurate." Oh, yeah? Accurate on the subject of whose emotions? Schulman's own, maybe; she certainly can't be sure of McCullers'.

Anyone wanting to see how sacred monsters can be effectively examined might want to pick up Marina Picasso's excoriating yet compassionate Grandfather. Anyone seeking a more balanced look at McCullers might peruse Hilton Als' recent New Yorker review of her collected novels. And anyone wanting to avoid aggressively bad art might want to bypass Carson McCullers (Historically Inaccurate), which also can claim the distinction of having no distinction in any of its collaborating departments. Okay, sound designer Janet Kalas has found some mighty fine Ethel Waters cuts to play before and during the proceedings, but that's it. On Neil Patel's dark and boring set, with its clapboard back wall fit with a slim window, director Marion McClinton is unable to deploy his actors any way other than clumsily.

Rick Stear and Jenny Bacon inCarson McCullers (Historically Inaccurate)(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Rick Stear and Jenny Bacon in
Carson McCullers (Historically Inaccurate)
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
And what McClinton lets his actors get away with! Jenny Bacon, whose credits include a couple of Ivo von Hove's play-the-subtext-as-brutally-as-you-can productions, goes so far over the top as McCullers that she's probably only now touching down in L.A. At times, while exorcising the suffering and insufferable novelist-playwright's demons, she looks like something from an Exorcist outtake, yet Linda Blair is not the actress Bacon most closely resembles; in fact, she's a Cherry Jones look-alike. You can almost hear McClinton and casting director James Calleri saying that Jones would be ideal, were she slightly younger, and that therefore a "Cherry Jones type" would do. Though not responsible for her looks, Bacon is accountable for slapping on that sappy grin Jones regularly uses to convey well-meaning befuddlement.

The balance of the company, five actors in all, play multiple roles. Where Bacon overacts, they underact--none more egregiously than Rosalyn Coleman, who's been given the admittedly daunting task of impersonating the great Ethel Waters. Anne Torsiglieri doesn't have an easy time of it, either; asked to show off Gypsy's sophisticated-strip gimmick, she delivers a feather boa-enhanced shimmy that's about as sexy as Betty Furness opening a refrigerator door in those old television commercials.

Tim Hopper does a little better as Tennessee Williams; he's got something of the accent down but not much of that submerged-in-booze quality the ur-Williams had. Michi Barall, who plays Sandy/Julie Harris, comes across as a girl scout having been sent to do a theater magician's job. Rick Stear as Reeves McCullers tries consistently but works no wonders with his sketchy character, and the same is true of Barbara eda-Young and LeLand Gantt in their assignments. Carson McCullers (Historically Inaccurate)? In or out of parentheses, it's not recommended.