Taking her title from a line in Elizabeth Bishop’s jarring poem “Visits to St. Elizabeth's,” Hayley Heaton’s new play explores the trips Bishop took to this hospital to call on an aging Ezra Pound in the late ‘40s. While there’s an indulgent glee to Heaton’s interpretation of these meetings, The Man in the Newspaper Hat stretches an already abstract poem, struggling to conjure up a plot and climax. Once the adrenaline rush of near-voyeurism wears off, there is little to replace it.
Reviewed by Amanda Halkiotis
As a poetry consultant for the Library of Congress, Elizabeth Bishop (Anne Fizzard) is young, tentative, and yet to come into her own creatively. She has also been assigned the duty of visiting Ezra Pound (Angus Hepburn) from time to time. The older, uninhibited Pound has rejected society as much as it has rejected him, banished to a mental hospital instead of put on trial for treason. As time goes by Pound looks forward to Bishop coming round, even affectionately calling her “Liz Bish.” Bishop, in turn, brings him tokens and news from the outside world. This zany mutual regard shows a tender bond between two hypersensitive artists who may not be as different as they thought.
Sadly, this dynamic is left undeveloped, just an underlying theme. What starts as an insightful examination of friendship amid polar opposites keeps turning into a flat comedy. The well-intentioned script works great in each vignette as Elizabeth enters and leaves the hospital. This setup cannot accommodate a full-length piece, however. To compensate, Heaton uses unbalanced, ill-timed humor. She pits her characters against each other as if it were an exaggerated madcap social experiment. What will happen next, and which character’s absurd, creative outburst? It’s an amusing setup that soon runs out of steam, for there is nothing deeper or more substantive to help pick up the pace.
Director Katrin Hilbe makes the most of what she has to work with, staging scenes of outrage and confrontation with a startling, frightening realness. When Pound aggressively assaults Bishop for not bringing him microfilm strips from the Library, it’s easy to see the inspiration behind her powerful poem. This scene especially exhibits how Hepburn carries the show as the iconic modernist poet and quintessential tortured Jew. His fairweather temper and insecure narcissism nail the idea of a petulant artist so used to his own infamy that he won’t be ignored. He plays well off Fizzard, too, though his performance wholly (and rightfully) overshadows her. In fact, this volatility can even be seen in his hospital room, as set designer Elisa Schaefer had great fun imagining how a famous poet might decorate his designated living space.
Because of the interesting subject matter, The Man in the Newspaper Hat is able to get away with a lackluster script. Those who enjoy the lofty, ungrounded combination of theater and poetry, historical fiction and biography, may actually find merit to the writing, too. The evening’s entertainment stems from exploring the imaginative everyday lives of two contemporary American writers, and the way in which one’s behavior may have prompted the other to write a scathing poem about him. But without a strong beginning, middle, or end, the play reads more like a string of arbitrary, unlikely arguments between two revered literary figures than anything that would make them truly empathetic and real.
The Man in the Newspaper Hat (70 minutes; no intermission)
45th Street Theater (354 West 45th Street)
Tickets [www.theatermania.com]: $18
Performances [through 4/1]: Mons-Weds 8pm; Sundays 2pm
According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.