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Amy Ryan and Pete Starrett
in Saved
(Photo: Ken Howard)
There has always been something eerie about the descent into the American Place Theater, two levels below West 46th Street between Times Square and Sixth Avenue. The staircase and escalator are decorated with posters of the plays of Sam Shepard and Maria Irene Fornes, looking oh so young and radical. These are writers of plays that, in their time (the '60s and early '70s) were both revelatory and quite successful. So it is with a wink of irony that The American Place Theatre is home to Theatre For A New Audience's riveting revival of Edward Bond's Saved, an English classic from 1965.

I don't know if it was due to the legend of the play itself (Saved was the last work to be banned in England by the Lord Chamberlain), the pull of the on-stage violence, or the sensational press release, but nearly every theater reviewer in New York City was in attendance at a recent press performance. It was definitely a meeting of the clan. Had we come to praise the great Edward Bond, or to bury him?

Saved is set amongst the poor working class of the south side of London, and Theatre for a New Audience's production is of nearly epic proportions. What looks like a huge ream of paper rolling from a dowel dominates the theater; this unraveling becomes the curtain that allows us our limited or expanded view of the stage. A monstrous, --"L"-shaped wall takes up one corner of the acting area, while a beautiful, silk-like curtain that pulls up like a window shade may be found stage right. A couch, a table and chair, and even a floating boat are used to furnish Bond's play of death and redemption.

The play is inhabited by a dreary family: a mother and father and their daughter, Pam. Pam is pregnant by a local boy (or thug, as you might have it) named Fred. To add some money to the family coffers, father Harry and mother Mary let out one of their rooms to a handsome young man named Len. At the top of Act I, Len and Pam are having sex on the family couch as Harry interrupts. The almost antiseptic display of emotion here sets the tone of the entire production.

Eventually, Pam has her unwanted baby...and Fred and his hooligan mates bash the baby to death in one of the most terrifying, most unsettling moments in the history of live theater. How is it possible that we can accept so much violence on TV and in the movies, but one incident such as this can compel audience members to scream and run away in anger? This extremely well-staged moment is as explosive as anything on stage in New York. Were those who bolted from the performance I attended right to do so? Or does Bond's insistent use of violence teach us a moral lesson that we sadly need to learn? The heinous crime commited in the play can be seen as a collective scream by the young murderers in response to their entrapment by society. Enough has been written about Saved and its message on violence to fill a textbook. Suffice it to say, the play makes its point without compromise.

There are many joys in the cast. Terence Rigby as Harry gives one of the understated performances of the year, and Pete Starrett is well cast as Len, the heart and soul of the piece. Leave it to the great director/teacher Robert Woodruff to even attempt to communicate all the details of Saved; each line, even each word of the play is presented as an isolated morsel of thought. Long, heavy pauses prevail, and the acting is extremely naturalistic.

As mentioned before, Douglas Stein's set is extraordinary. All of the other production elements fall beautifully into place: costumes (Catherine Zuber), lighting (David Weiner), and, especially, the sound design by Leah Gelpe.

Saved leads one to wonder how many other plays that once filled the theaters of London are yet to be rediscovered. If you were among those audience members who took a hike during the first act of the performance I attended, shame on you for missing something grand, disturbing, enlightening, and downright sensational. Shepard and Fornes would know what I'm talking about.

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