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Kevin Daniels and Thomas Babson
in Compromise
(Photo © Frank Molinski)
Israel Horovitz, founder and artistic director of Gloucester Stage, has quite a distinguished CV as a playwright. Among his 50-odd works to date, The Indian Wants the Bronx made his name -- as well as tyro actor Al Pacino's -- with an OBIE Award back in 1968. (Pacino later played a character based on Horovitz in the movie made from his 1982 screenplay Author! Author!) Horovitz is currently adapting Park Your Car in Harvard Yard, a 1980 play that went to Broadway in '91, as a film vehicle for Julianne Moore. And he's preparing his latest play, Compromise, which has workshopped its way through Florida, New York, and Ottawa over the past four years, for its official New York debut late next winter.

Horovitz's very prolixity ups the odds of an occasional clunker, and Compromise has "misstep" written all over it. Talk about talky plays! That's virtually all that the quartet of variously able actors do in Act I. The setting is research scientist Aaron Keyes' untidy study (he's apparently adept at on-the-floor filing), where he's filming a "video diary" for posterity and blathering on about the precepts of Bishop Berkeley and the expansive nature of breakthroughs such as the four-minute mile. (Consider that latter allusion a Chekhovian gun). The video conceit provides an excuse to project a blow-up of Aaron's visage onto the back wall, but this enlargement in no way expands his expressivity: Between his beard, his thatch of white hair, and his oversize glasses (think Cary Grant in his later years), only a few square inches of veteran actor Thomas Babson's face are even visible. Nor does he exert much force of personality. When Aaron protests that he's "not an old fart yet" but "an aging fart," the distinction hardly warrants a quibble.

The audience can be forgiven an internal cringe when a middle-aged African-American maid dust-busts her way into his lair. Can the spectre of white liberal guilt lag far behind? "You're working; I'm making too much noise," ventures Alice (played tentatively by Barbara Poitier, her affect always slightly off). "You must be hungry," she adds. The latter line is something of a leitmotif. We get it: She's a nurturer, a fact underscored by her penchant for going thousands of dollars into debt to buy toys for hospitalized kids. This habit always annoyed Alice's now-grown son Thomas (the kinetically charged Kevin Daniels), who came up from poverty to become an M.D. and to secure a position as Aaron's underappreciated research assistant. The fourth member of this makeshift family is Aaron's daughter Becca (Alex Zielke), whom we see through a scrim as she IMs her father and her childhood friend, sending execrable, embittered poetry and the occasional "luv u." Becca's alcoholic mother has recently landed in detox, which prompts a melodramatic yet elided crisis in Act II.

How much can you care about a character who wakes up one day and wonders aloud to his housekeeper/confidante, "Have you really been cleaning my rugs for 26 years?" That's taking the stereotype of the absent-minded scientist to an absurd but not especially funny extreme. Presumably it's meant to be a humanizing moment when Aaron asks Alice, out of the blue, if she'd like to dance. "Bach is too balletic," he says before tuning the radio dial to "Baby I'm a Want You" so they can launch into a slo-mo frug. It's torture to watch; you wish they'd go back to just talking.

That's exactly what they do in Act II, with a few blow-ups and anguished howls thrown in to keep the audience from drifting off. There's a flurry of excitement over "Q2," Aaron and Thomas's jointly discovered brain-tumor antidote, and a feint at a family reunion. Before long, though, Aaron's back auto-videoing and posing such questions as "What have we learned from these lives of ours, really?" Talky and preachy -- it's too much. Some of us may have learned that skipping out at intermission is occasionally the wisest course of action.

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