Friday, November 14, 2008

Saturn Returns

Warning: Don’t go to this play is you are depressed, or even just feeling down. Saturn Returns, by Noah Haidle at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, is a sad play about lonely people, and the ending is not cathartic the way similarly themed work can be.

If you are in good spirits, which I am, and a lover of interesting theatre, you might want to check out this new play, which tells the story of one man at three different stages of his life.

The play begins with Gustin Novak, a delightful John McMartin (in photo) at 88. A retired radiologist, he lives alone in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His beloved wife, Loretta, died giving birth to their only child, Zephyr, who also is dead, having drowned in Mexico 30 years ago. Rosie Benton ably plays both women, as well as the elder Gustin’s home health assistant, Suzanne. James Rebhorn is moving as Gustin at 58 in 1978; Robert Eli portrays him at 28 in 1948.

I like the way director Nicholas Martin, with the help of Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting and Mark Bennett’s original music and sound design, has staged the back and forth shifts of time, and how the theme of loneliness plays out in each. Gustin at one age will climb the stairs or head out the door as Gustin at another age walks in. The only inconsistency in character was in the youngest Gustin, a medical student and newly married. He lacks the considerable humor and personality of the older selves.

The dialogue for the elderly and middle-aged Gustin is funny and well timed, but it’s clear that the joking around is Gustin’s way of avoiding his loneliness. As the 88-year-old, he attempts to find companionship in anyway he can -- calling a list of service providers, such as a computer repair man even though he doesn’t own a computer and luring a plumber to the house by stopping up the toilet with a tennis ball. The 58-year-old has a flair for comedy as he comes up with a variety of reasons for rejecting the women his daughter is trying to fix him up with -- Virginia, no, because he had a bad experience once in Roanoke and Bonny because she’s fat. “She probably has her own Zip Code,” he says, quipping that when she gets on the scale “it says, ‘To be continued.’” He’d rather stay home with Zephyr, whom he clings to emotionally.

The play, at 70 minutes, is well paced, but it left me wanting more. If I hadn’t known there wasn’t one, I would have thought when the lights came up that we had reached intermission, rather than the end of the play. We’re left with the image of young Gustin and Loretta happy and in love, with the older selves on stage, haunting the joy. An intriguing and moving ending, if not totally satisfying.

As we were leaving, my friend Lauren mentioned that she never found the meaning of the play’s title in the work and I realized I had been so involved in the story that I had forgotten the press notes had indicated a cosmic element that didn’t click with either of us. The press release stated: “The planet Saturn's orbital return to its position at the moment of a person's birth happens every 30 years.” Thirty years separate each plot line -- Gustin in old age, 30 years before when his daughter died and 30 years before that when she was conceived, but having little knowledge of astrology, and finding none offered in the play, I don’t see why the story segments couldn’t have just as well been separated by 25 years or 28 and the play given a different title.

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