Maria Dizzia and Joseph Parks in Eurydice
(© Joan Marcus)
Maria Dizzia and Joseph Parks in Eurydice
(© Joan Marcus)
In her relatively young playwriting career, Sarah Ruhl has won several awards and much awed recognition. She was a 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist for The Clean House, a work that in its New York production this past season did not add up to more than the sum of its most imaginative parts but nonetheless warranted attention. She is also this year's lone dramatist recipient of the MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship, which brought her a cool $500,000.

So while Ruhl looks to be someone requiring serious attention, that attention is difficult to accord eurydice, a pretentious and woefully precious spin on the Orpheus and Eurydice myth now at the Second Stage Theatre after stints at Wisconsin's Madison Repertory Theatre, California's Berkeley Repertory Theatre and the Yale Repertory. It's now fair to wonder whether those respected institutions simply haven't noticed their newly appointed empress isn't wearing any compelling dramaturgical clothes.

As a reminder, the Eurydice whom the ancient Greeks knew marries music-minded Orpheus minutes before being bitten by an asp and sent to the underworld. Grieving Orpheus talks his way below to be told he may reclaim his beloved if he doesn't look back at her until they leave Hades' portals. He can't do it and loses Eurydice forever.

Adapting the dolorous tale on a set which Scott Bradley has designed to look like a tiled community shower stall, Ruhl has molded it into a Freud-influenced, patience-trying allegory. In the recycle, Eurydice (Maria Dizzia, frequently wearing a giddy grin) discovers that her commitment to Orpheus (Joseph Parks) is clouded by a disinclination to divorce herself from longings for her deceased father (Charles Shaw Robinson). The snake in the Ruhl retelling is so-called Nasty and Interesting Man (Mark Zeisler), who immediately post-wedding lures her to his penthouse apartment from which she takes the fatal plunge. The nasty man is then transformed into Lord of the Underworld and rides an out-sized tricycle pulling a stuffed animal on a small flatbed.

The tiled underworld -- where Eurydice's solicitous dad constructs a house of string for her -- is populated only by three other people who identify themselves as Loud Stone (Gian-Murray Gianino), Little Stone (Carla Harting) and Big Stone (Ramiz Monsef). The Stones speak in droned unison, are dressed by Meg Neville to look like fugitives from Lionel Bart's Oliver, and made up to resemble Edgar Degas' absinthe drinkers.

Throughout eurydice, there is much letter writing between the upper and lower world, and the epistolary activities eventually lead Orpheus to say, "I'll give this letter to a worm. I hope he finds you." Later, Eurydice repeats the lines verbatim. If writing like this or like "A song is two dead bodies rubbing under the covers to keep warm" is to a theater-lover's taste, then eurydice might be not only palatable but gripping.

Those working to best effect on the underworld undertaking do not include the cast, who are defeated by the material, or director Les Waters, who does little to minimize or ameliorate the rampant cutesie-poo. Those deserving genuine applause include lighting designer Russell H. Champa and sound designer Bray Poor. Together, they make something suspenseful of the aborted exit from Hades. (Is that an excerpt from Gluck's Orpheus and Eurydice being piped in?) There also appears to be an unbilled special effects designer who occasionally dumps poetic water on the star-crossed, rain-drenched couple.

Artistic expression is often a form of therapy, but some therapeutic expression is worth sharing and some isn't. eurydice may be an instance of a playwright's working out a personal father-daughter dilemma; nonetheless, its realization is not yet ready for public consumption. Maybe some of that half-million-dollar award money can be used to revisit the piece. For now, let's just say that Sarah simply doesn't rule.