Theater: Dark comedy

‘On Clover Road’ challenges ‘empathy gym’

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The Girl (Nancy Kimball) and Stine (Michael Storm) survey an abandoned motel in Rueff Theatre’s production of ‘On Clover Road.’ Photo by Rebecca Hodges.

By Charles Brousse

San Francisco Playhouse’s decision to inaugurate the use of A.C.T.’s new black box Rueff Theatre (upstairs at The Strand on Market Street) with a production of Steven Dietz’ On Clover Road has me scratching my head. Unless I’m missing something, this darkest of dark comedies is the antithesis of the company’s proclaimed humanistic mission, one of the key elements in its meteoric rise from 2003’s humble beginning in a cramped second floor downtown walk-up to today’s capacious facility inside the Kensington Hotel just up Post Street from Union Square.

Founding artistic director Bill English often describes the Playhouse as an “empathy gym,” a place where “actors, directors, writers, designers, and theater lovers converge to create works that celebrate the human spirit.”

This description also applies to the “Sandbox Series,” a development program that provides opportunities for writers to test and refine promising new scripts. Its most successful project to date has been Aaron Loeb’s Ideation, which not only graduated to the company’s regular season, but is now enjoying a critically acclaimed off-Broadway New York run with the original Bay Area cast.

While On Clover Road is also being presented in the Sandbox Series, it comes to San Francisco as part of a three-theater “rolling world premiere” sponsored by the National New Play Network. That’s an impressive endorsement, but, given their philosophical beliefs, one wonders why English and Susi Damilano, the Playhouse’s collective brain trust, would choose this amoral, non-humanistic play for their initial high-profile production at The Rueff?

Based on public comments, there seem to have been a number of factors. First, the writer is relatively well-known, with a proven track record. Then, there was a personal connection because English and Damilano met and married after working together on an earlier Dietz play. In terms of content, Clover struck them as being the kind of fast-moving, high-energy, surprise-filled thriller that both they and their audiences enjoy. Finally, it had moral appeal as an emotional testament to that most basic of human instincts, motherly love.

Leaving aside name recognition and the producers’ personal involvement, I have to respectfully disagree about the thriller designation. Yes, we are confronted by one fraught situation after another and there are many surprises. Too many, in fact, as Dietz switches identities and changes the game at such a frantic pace that we soon don’t know who to care about, or whether it’s worth caring at all. As transitions become increasingly extreme and implausible, they begin to seem comical—hence my calling On Clover Road a “dark comedy”—except that, despite the prevalence of post-modern irony in today’s culture, it still feels wrong to laugh when characters on stage are plainly suffering.

As for rationalizing the play’s successive scenes of deceit and violence by asserting that it’s about a mother’s fierce determination to rescue her teenage daughter from the clutches of a malevolent cult, that claim of morality is gradually undercut as we learn who this woman really was, and is. There are revelations about alcoholism, about parental neglect, about a substantial trust fund that becomes payable to her if her child dies first. She matches every shift in the cult’s direction with one of her own, even participating in what she thinks is the murder of one of its members.

In sum, On Clover Road is a real challenge for the operators of San Francisco Playhouse’s “empathy gym.” I may be mistaken, but I have the feeling that, in the absence of consistent backstories for the play’s five chameleon-like characters, director Susi Damilano and her five-member cast (Michael Storm, Sally Dana, Rachel Goldberg, Nancy Kimball and Adam Elder) did the best they could with the few clues offered.

It remains to be said that research tells me that among critics across the country, my view is distinctly a minority one. Instead, there’s applause all around. In fact, only the San Francisco Chronicle’s Robert Hurwitt, with whom I’ve often been at odds during his 16-year tenure, took a similar position. It came last week in his final review for the paper.

What significance does that have? Honestly, I haven’t a clue.

NOW PLAYING: On Clover Road runs through April 16 at The Rueff, upstairs at The Strand, 1127 Market Street, San Francisco; 415/677-9596; sfplayhouse.org.

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