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When Susan Sontag accepted this year's National Book Award for her novel In America, she remarked that "these materials are completely transformed." She was talking about the sources she researched for the prize-winning book, but she could just as easily have been discussing Ivo van Hove's New York Theater Workshop production of her play, Alice in Bed.

Van Hove, who has been the general manager and resident director of Het Zuidelijk Toneel since 1990, has taken charge of two previous Workshop enterprises: Eugene O'Neill's More Stately Mansions in 1997 and Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire in 1999. In the process, he put what appeared to be his signature on both the former play (a lesser work) and the latter (a masterwork).

Or would it be better to say he put his soiled fingerprints all over them? Van Hove's approach, while appearing complex, is actually simple: He plays the subtext whenever possible. For instance, if a spoiled young man is complaining like a child, as happens in O'Neill's piece, van Hove asks the actor to sit on the floor with legs sprayed and deliver his speeches in baby talk. If someone is meant to be smoking a cigarette, as happens in A Streetcar Named Desire, van Hove sees no reason to have an actor even hold a cigarette; too obvious, he seems to be saying. Any director can have an actor to smoke if that's what's indicated in the script.

And van Hove clearly doesn't see him as just any other director. Nor do many members of the critics community, which has greeted his work with great enthusiasm. I, to the contrary, have been ready to call him a charlatan. What others might have deemed iconoclasm has seemed obnoxious tampering to me. I left both the O'Neill and Williams productions in a quiet fury. And that's how I approached Alice in Bed, especially after reading the transcript of a Sontag-van Hove discussion in which she was quoted as saying about his treatment of her words, "What Ivo sees is perfectly valid. But I have to say it's not what I saw."

All right, what did she see? The Alice of Sontag's title is Alice James, the sister of Henry and William James and a brilliant woman in her own right, yet so troubled about her prospects that she took the belief that a woman's place is in the home to an extreme: She felt her place was in bed. She took to it in America and England, where she died of cancer in 1892 when she was 43, but not before writing a diary that came to public attention.

Sontag's 1993 play is based on the diary and from what else is known about Alice, like her having asked her domineering father, Henry James Sr., for permission to kill herself when she was 20. In putting this eight-scene work together, however, Sontag didn't consider the facts paramount. She seized on Alice James as an opportunity for fantasizing, as a way to make some statements about how suppression can become integral to a woman's psyche. In an afterword to the published script, she writes that Alice in Bed is a play "about the grief and anger of women and, finally, a play about the imagination."

Over the course of the action, Alice, tended by a nurse, refuses to get out of bed. She entertains(if that's the word) her brother in her mind, remembers talks with her father and mother, and imagines herself in Rome and also at a tea party with other accomplished real and mythical women like Emily Dickinson, Margaret Fuller, Kundry and Myrtha, the Queen of the Wilis. Towards the end of her ruminations, she's interrupted by an actual burglar, whom she intimidates. Believing in the mind as the safest place to venture, she ultimately decides she'll resist the temptation to leave bed and will spend the rest of her brief days there.

Sontag's play is sketchy, impressionistic, something of a fanciful variation on a feminist tract. She shows Alice to the audience without delving too deeply into her psychology. Or, put another way: She may think she's delving deeply into Alice's psychology, but she doesn't get far. Nor does she say much that hasn't been noted before. She skips across the James woman's life, calling up with that tea party a comparison to another Victorian character, Lewis Carroll's Alice. (The title, of course, is a play on the Carroll classic's title.) The heroine says things like this to her solicitous brother: "Long ceaseless strain and tension have worn out all aspiration save the one for rest! The shaping period is past and one is fitted to every limitation through the long custom of surrender." The outburst, she goes on to remark, is a quote from her diary.

Because Alice's emotional life is so much on the surface, there isn't much in the way of subtext here. Therefore, in many ways, the play may be the perfect material to feed into van Hove's directing machine. And the production he's given it--without, it seems, changing a word--is evocative and beautiful. Aside from that marauding burglar, who even kisses Alice before he leaves her (the kiss is not in the author's stage directions), van Hove alters the action so that everything happening to Alice takes place in her mind. His choice is really just an extension of Sontag's notion that Alice's father, mother, and brother are visions. It's a short step, he figures, from daydreaming to full-fledged dreaming. And it's not much of a longer step for Alice's nurse, whose play-opening line is "Of course, you can get up," to become her superego's stern interior voice.

It all falls acceptably into place. Seeing van Hove's Alice in Bed is like walking into an art gallery installation by production designer Jan Versweyveld, whose aesthetic is unquestionably refined. Alice reposes in a bed molded to her body (well, to actor Joan MacIntosh's body) and is surrounded by scores of objects hung from strings that turn slowly and occasionally rise and fall. The artifacts represent things to which Alice refers in her ruminations--many books, tea cups, a mirror, a hypodermic needle, a wooden leg. (Henry James Sr. had a leg amputated when he was 13.) When a slumbering Alice conjures the tea party, gauzy curtains drop in place, across which pictures hypnotically glide and dodge.

The overall look is that of a wonderland through which Alice is falling. The effect is oneiric, dream-like; it's simultaneously heady and anxiety-provoking. While Alice is sparring with the visions of her parents and brother and swapping ideas with the famous ladies and menacing the burglar, it's hard not to be engaged. But, like a dream, much of it fades when the play ends. The production offers a stunning and stirring series of images without substance; it invites expectations of, but doesn't necessarily lend itself to, profound meaning.

This is no reflection on MacIntosh's fully committed performance. Always a game, pliant, bold actress, MacIntosh is one of those theater folks currently putting complete trust in van Hove. She was willing to give herself over completely in More Stately Mansions, so completely that she did a bare-breasted scene O'Neill didn't ask for--and she puts herself through physical discomfort here. The bed she lies on--sometimes chattering volubly, sometimes snoring, sometimes twisting her head from side to side and writhing--doesn't look as if it comes with a Serta mattress, yet she stays there for all but about 10 minutes of the action. A solid woman, MacIntosh doesn't suggest Alice James' physical frailty; but she certainly conveys the steely stamina that adamant women, no matter how physically or psychosomatically ill they may be, always seem to possess.

Jorre Vanderbussche does well as the uncertain burglar. In the video segments, Jeroen Krabbe as Alice's father, Valda Setterfield as her mother, and Elizabeth Marvel as Margaret Fuller are properly stern. Paul Rudd is brother Henry, and his brief appearance is jarring in that he doesn't look or behave anything like the common perception of Henry James. Maybe this shouldn't mean much, but it does.

With Alice in Bed, Sontag and van Hove have made a match and lit it.

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