Sarah Ruhl’s new play, “Dear Elizabeth,” tells the story of the complicated friendship between the poets Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop.
Rulh’s dialogue is taken entirely from their letters to each other, and it ranges over decades, from the high-toned and literary to the down and dirty.
Lowell, a New England aristocrat, World War II draft resister and manic-depressive, took a liking to the socially awkward Bishop, whose tastes ran more to women, alcohol and solitude.
“I wish I could write on another planet,” she complains at one point.
The drama unfolds in a nondescript room full of books and papers with a big wooden table and chairs in the center, where Robert (Tom Nelis) and Elizabeth (Mary Beth Fisher) successfully bring the letters to life with little more than their voices. (Occasionally they get up and dance with each other, or fall down drunk.
Robert sends Elizabeth drafts of his writing, and she’s confident enough to correct a passage here and there. He admires her work at least as much, encouraging her when she’s in the dumps and recommending her for teaching jobs.
The production is smoothly directed by Les Waters, the playwright’s frequent collaborator who made her 2009 comedy “In the Next Room (or the vibrator play)” a hit first in Berkeley and then on Broadway.
Across the bay, Tom Stoppard’s brainy and romantic “Arcadia” (1993) is getting a fine restaging at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. It’s a play that forces you to think while laughing.
The action takes place in 1808-1812 and the present, in the elegant and slightly ramshackle country-house drawing room of an aristocratic English family. In the 19th-century scenes, there’s a plot revolving around poetry, landscape architecture and mathematics, along with the possible doings of the unseen houseguest Lord Byron and the learned discussions between the family’s precocious 13-year-old girl and her tutor, Byron’s pal at Cambridge.
The present-day characters -- an academic, a writer and the latest generations of the Coverly family -- try to figure out what happened two centuries earlier.
The play’s ambitions are the biggest: how we know what we know, the tension between order and chaos, the meaning of time. Yet it manages to be funny and touching and profound without being pretentious. It’s probably Stoppard’s best play, and a triumph for director Carey Perloff, the company’s longtime artistic head.
The original London production remains in my memory for its evocation of witty English people discussing literature and the merits of classical and gothic styles of gardens. It emitted a fine glow with its polished cast and setting. The San Francisco production, with another talented group of actors, breaks your heart with the tale of young Thomasina, the math whiz who would have been a star in Silicon Valley.
The National Theatre of Scotland’s “Black Watch” has taken over the Armory Community Center, a former National Guard facility in the city’s Mission district, to tell its polished and visceral tale of British troops in Iraq and what it’s like to go home.
Like “Arcadia,” the drama moves seamlessly between one world and another: in this case, the cramped, tense environment of a soldier from a legendary regiment sent to a hostile war zone, and the boring place afterward called back home.
The plot-thin piece is sometimes closer to dance than narrative theater, especially the Iraqi combat scenes that are executed with balletic precision.
“Black Watch” premiered in Edinburgh in 2005, when the idea that the war was a disaster was still fresh. A bit of that currency may now be lost, though it still demonstrates the price that was paid in a powerful and serious way.
“Black Watch,” hosted by A.C.T., runs through June 16 at the Armory Community Center, 333 14th St., San Francisco. Information: +1-415-749-2228; http://www.act-sf.org. Rating: ****
(Stephen West is an editor for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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