Because of the complications of copyright, we may never see a living embodiment of Holden Caulfield on either stage or screen. Terrence McNally, however, offered us the next best thing with Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone?, a work that premiered in 1971 at the Yale Rep. It combines autobiographical elements with a not-so-subtextual musing of what Holden Caulfield would have been like if he had made it to adulthood and the 1960’s. Indeed, the narrative movement conforms much to the original novel’s: a journey to New York City (this time in a plan instead of a train), a disastrous dalliance in a hotel, an ambivalent relationship with an older brother, a nervous breakdown in the rain. Now, though, the rebel without a cause suddenly has a cause.
There are some dated elements to McNally’s script (a starchy female customer at Bloomingdale’s for instance), but much of it remains surprisingly relevant in part because the playwright did not construct a realistic work. It is more of a meditation on the 1960’s counter-culture movement and its relationship to its roots in the 1950’s. In pushing his Holden-like character forward, McNally also does the same with other 1950’s icons such as James Dean and Marilyn Monroe. Tommy himself embodies both the positive and negative of that counter-culture movement (in 1971 the country found itself in a pretty dark place and elements of the peace movement turned to violence for political purpose). One can hear echoes of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas when he reflects, “So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.” The play and character walk the razor’s edge between the wave and the place where it broke, between Woodstock and Altamont.
It is in that ambiguity that the plays finds its resonance, particularly a year into the Trump Era. In a time when the old idealism is lost, when a sense of loss and abandonment is profound, and when desperation builds to an overwhelming force, it requires no great act of imagination what troubling path some might choose.
Of course, what is needed to convey this 1971 work in 2017 is a creative team that can navigate its extremely treacherous currents. Fortunately, Starting 5 Productions has done just that. Director Laura Braza and her design team have just done that. Scene designer Zach Serafin constructed one of the better sets I have seen on an off-off-Broadway budget that both tells the (expressionistic) story and conveys a certain beauty of the underground in its own right. Braza, further, keeps the the production moving at pace without sacrificing emotional depth.
The ensemble moves seamlessly from the ridiculous to the realistic. Emily Kitchens, playing numerous roles, does a hilarious job as an oblivious Pat Nixon. Portraying Ben Delight, Daniel O’Shea finds nuance in the role of the gentleman beggar. Emma Geer infuses Nedda Lemon with a melancholy that informs even her happier moments. When she admits to her deep unhappiness in her final scene with Tommy, we can just hear her heart break.
The lynchpin of all of this is Tommy, played by the exceptional David Gow. Gow does not so much embody the role as devour it. The danger of Holden or Tommy is that either could easily be reduced to a sociopath. The necessary approach, therefore, is to embrace the damaged child that is Tommy, that he has been damaged by the family, nation, world, and his own dreams. Gow pulls back from the bombast and hubris that often colored individuals from the counter-culture and instead fills his Tommy with vulnerability and despair. Even as he sits in the airplane drinking champagne looking across at America, an elegiac note sounds in his voice. When in the play’s coda, he loses everyone, we know, from Gow’s careful construction, that these are in fact losses that he cannot bare (despite his seeming bravado to the contrary). Yet, he finds puckish fun in the more surreal elements; he offers a vaudevillian physical battle with Mrs. Nixon as a blind handicapped girl at a photo op, a dead-on parody of James Dean, and a wonderfully demented performance as a Trotskyite Marilyn Monroe. This last left parody behind in the rear-view window and entered the realm of the sublime. Throughout, Gow finds the humanity that underscores all the character’s actions, and thus finds the tragic in the play’s final moments.
Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone? performs through December 17. More information can be found here: https://wherehastommyflowersgone.weebly.com