Sunday, February 15, 2009

On-Stage: The Book of Lambert

It opened on St. Valentine’s Day and uses Romeo and Juliet as a recurring motif. However, The Book of Lambert is far from being a theatrical box of chocolates and a dozen roses. Love is definitely a powerful thing in the play, but it may have irreparably damaged the leader of six homeless people living deep in the subterranean tunnels of the New York City subway. Originally written thirty years ago, Tony-Award nominated playwright Leslie Lee’s The Book of Lambert recently premiered on-stage, officially opening at La MaMa e.t.c. on February 14th.

Shakespeare and Romeo and Juliet have tremendous resonance for Lambert, a former college professor living a shadowy underground existence. The tragedy’s famous prologue is our first introduction to Lambert, who returns to Shakespeare’s words throughout the play (mixing in a fair amount of Hamlet as well, for good measure). There would seem to be strong parallels between his life and Shakespeare’s play when the African American Lambert becomes romantically involved with Virginia, a white woman from an affluent family. Yet much to his regret, their relationship fell far short of the romantic ideal in ways that ultimately sent him into an emotional tailspin, ending somewhere deep beneath the A/C/E line.

While haunted by visions of Virginia, Lambert shares his mattress with Priscilla, a former exotic dancer with a voracious sex-drive. Crashing in close proximity are: Bonnie, a pregnant junkie, Clancy, an amnesiac ex-cop, Otto, a blind old man, and his wife, Zinth. All seem to consider Lambert an authority figure, even though the ex-professor keeps aloof, preferring to spend his time writing his book, which in the obsessive tradition of outsider art, sounds like a diverse collection of epigrams, dramatic vignettes, and academic minutiae that conceal an obscure wisdom.

Lee is an undeniably incisive writer, penning some shrewdly observed scenes between Lambert and Virginia in which the racial dynamic is ever-present, but never simplistic or didactic. In one particularly telling argument Lambert relives, he makes a compelling case on behalf of Robinson Crusoe’s literary merits. She prefers the rhythm of Langston Hughes. At first she goads him for not being black enough, disappointed he will not take her to a black church with “singing and clapping,” but when a meeting with her mother who lunches predictably degenerates into disaster, suddenly he is all too black.

Lee’s best scenes though involve Lambert’s rough psychoanalysis with Clancy, pushing him to rip open the psychic scars that derailed his life. These exchanges are brutally honest, visceral drama. Unfortunately, it is often hard to know what to make of the other denizens of the tunnel. While each gets a realistic back-story explained in a sharply written speech, they are left in such circumstances it leaves the audience puzzled about Lee’s intended meanings and questioning the nature of Lambert’s reality rather late in the play.

As Lambert, Clinton Faulkner gives a powerful performance, deftly balancing the extremes of his character. He clearly conveys the charisma of the man, as well as his deeply guarded vulnerabilities. Howard L. Wieder matches his intensity, bringing a sense of humanity to the highly flawed Clancy. However, it is difficult to understand Lambert’s feeling for Virginia, who Heather Massie simply portrays as an ethereal coquette, but maybe that is the point. Emotion always defies logic.

One leaves Lambert with much to digest, but unsure if you are taking away from the play what you are supposed to. Faulkner’s stage presence is undeniable though, as is the distinct sense of place evoked by Andis Gjoni’s set design. The unsettling mood is also heightened by the incidental music composed by Joe Gianono (also an arranger and guitarist in jazz contexts), which sounds like it may have been inspired by Miles Davis’s spacey but lyrical In a Silent Way. Though a bit long, Lambert is a well designed, altogether memorable theatrical experience, featuring a terrific lead performance. It runs at La MaMa through March 1st.

(Photo: Joe Bly)