Los Angeles/Regional Theater Review: HOW TO WRITE A NEW BOOK FOR THE BIBLE (South Coast Rep in Costa Mesa)

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by Tony Frankel on November 6, 2012

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional

HOW TO LAUGH AND CRY AND BE UNMOVED AT THE SAME TIME

Playwright Bill Cain, after discovering his mother, Mary, had six months to live, moved into the family home in Syracuse, New York. Like any good writer, Cain kept a diary during that trying time. His notes became the basis for How to Write a New Book for the Bible, now playing at South Coast Rep. The first line, spoken by Cain’s Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of How to Write a New Book for the Bible at South Coast Rep in Costa Mesaautobiographical character, also named Bill, explains why this play is enjoyable but ultimately leaves us wanting so much more, namely the delicacy and intricacy of a great family drama:

Bill: First rule of writing? “Write what you know.” If writers stuck to it, there would be no books. There would be no biographies. Maybe a few. Fewer autobiographies. We are mysteries. To ourselves and one another. Maybe the first rule of writing should be “Write a Mystery.”

What is mysterious is that Cain, in creating a context similar in nature to Six Degrees of Separation, eventually sticks too closely to actual events without any arc or revelational ending. The play’s conceits and the examination of a family’s nature become a bit redundant—almost like visiting someone else’s family reunion (which is fun to watch and ignites memories of your own family) only to find that you overstayed your welcome.

The title refers to Bill’s desire to add a book to the Bible, one which makes it clear that the Good Book is about family, not a set of rules. This definitely makes sense: the playwright (an ordained priest) gets to enlighten others while resolving his own feelings about family. Essentially a fragmented memory play, Cain cleverly splices Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of How to Write a New Book for the Bible at South Coast Rep in Costa Mesaremembrances with fourth wall-breaking commentary in such a way that most every audience member will relate to its themes of family dynamics and the death of a loved one. As such, Act I fairly flies by as Bill (Tyler Pierce) takes us on his time-shifting journey involving mom (Linda Gehringer), dad (Jeff Biehl), and brother (Aaron Blakely). On Scott Bradley’s non-realistic set, the whole play, except when characters address us directly, is a series of flashbacks within flashbacks, lucidly bouncing back and forth in place and time, whether at a doctor’s office, in a living room, or even the Viet Nam Memorial in Washington D. C. The crafty conceit even has characters commenting on other characters’ memories:

Bill: (to audience) That actually happened.
Mary: (to Bill) You exaggerate.
Bill: (to Mary, harsh) Don’t listen to her. Listen to me. She’s dead.
(Pause as Mary takes that in. Then, to audience)
Mary: See – he exaggerates.
Bill (a threat): Write what you know? I know someday I will write about her.
Mary: You’re not going to make me foolish, are you? (no response) Will you? Make me foolish?
Bill (referring to his notebook): I’m keeping a diary. I’ll stick as closely as I can to the exact words.
Mary: Not foolish, Billy. That wouldn’t be fair.
Bill: We see the surgeon tomorrow.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of How to Write a New Book for the Bible at South Coast Rep in Costa MesaAt one point in Act II, Bill is examining how he would have done things differently during his mother’s last months and says to us, “You know what? From now on I am going to try and stick as close to the diary as I can. In fact, word for word.” And that is exactly why his play stubbornly refuses to resonate. No matter how funny, loving, poignant, earnest and smartly written his play is, any misty-eyed laughter upon leaving the theater will become “What’s for dinner?” by the time you reach the parking lot.

photos by Jessica Palopoli

How to Write a New Book for the Bible
South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa
scheduled to end on November 18, 2012
for tickets, call (714) 708-5555 or visit http://www.scr.org

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