Timothy Mason's "Before I Got My Eye Put Out" at South Coast Repertory concerns a famous novelist (James Olson) who treats his life and his loved ones as if they were simply raw material for his books. Eventually, life gets back at him.
A simple play could be built on that thesis, or a complicated one. Mason chooses to build a complicated one--nearly as rococo as Cliff Faulkner's lavish set.
It represents the far-flung Caribbean villa where the novelist writes the hours away while his wife (Pamela Dunlap) keeps herself busy in the garden and at the cocktail cabinet.
She's dying to get back to New York, but he loves it here. He's Prospero on his own magic island. No need to publish books anymore; it's enough to compose them. He even has his Caliban, a young houseboy he's taught to read (Rick Najera.)
And his own daughter Miranda (Jessica Drake)--except that she's up in New York. But at the moment she is back on the island for a visit. Another visitor is a nicely stupid young man who may just be the model the novelist needs for a certain character in Chapter 13 (Timothy Shelton.)
Wonderful when material just falls in your lap like that. But there is trouble in paradise. The novelist's daughter shames him for having put her in a book--and getting her wrong. The nice young man tries to purloin his manuscripts. The houseboy joins the guerrilla group that's trying to make trouble at the local U.S. Navy base. The wife leaves him.
If this were a Somerset Maugham story, it would end with the novelist shrugging, pouring himself a whiskey and getting back to the typewriter. Mason's ending is more moralistic, with the betrayer betrayed. Effective, I suppose, if you believed in his dark powers in the first place.
But it's hard to do. The other characters keep testifying to the novelist's genius at drawing people out, at seeming to care. What the audience sees is a snotty egotist whose major interest in other people is to put down their grammar. (His own could stand some work.)
It's not actor Olson's fault that the character comes off like a jerk. He's written as a jerk. It's impossible to imagine him teaching a youngster to read, or taking the time to listen to a troubled daughter. This is precisely the kind of writer who doesn't look at the world. His only character is himself.
That doesn't invalidate a play about him, but it's not this play. It's also hard to swallow the scene where the odious young man talks the wife into the idea of purloining the manuscripts. Even if his scheme made legal sense, which it doesn't, it's hard to see her sitting at the same table with this twerp for more than two minutes once she understood what he'd come for. If the idea is that she's leading him on for her own purposes, we don't see it.
In general, "Before I Got My Eye Put Out"--the title is from Emily Dickinson--seems a contrivance, partly mitigated by clever dialogue (sometimes too clever) and some enjoyable acting. It's not clear whether David Emmes' company really believes this play, but they give it their best shot.
Does Dunlap fall into some Bette Davis line readings as the wife? Well, it is that kind of a role. Olson works bravely to find something redeemable in the novelist--thankless task--and Shelton creates a credible young literary hustler, whose curse was to be born in a prairie town where the New York Times Book Review always came a week late.
Jessica Drake as the daughter does well on two counts: both in showing us the young woman's mental instability (under a madcap facade that starts to fray almost instantly) and in suggesting that her father does indeed have the seductive powers that the script neglects to demonstrate.
Rick Najera is likable as the naive houseboy, who has no problem reconciling the Book of Matthew with a scheme to kidnap his boss, and Mark Del Castillo-Morante is fine as his revolutionary mentor, who turns out to be a double agent. (You can see what a busy plot it is.) Richard Doyle plays the commander of the naval base, who takes our novelist about as seriously as the viewer is likely to. 'BEFORE I GOT MY EYE PUT OUT'
Timothy Mason's play, at South Coast Repertory. Director David Emmes. Setting Cliff Faulkner. Costumes Barbara Cox. Lighting Cameron Harvey. Production manager Paul Hammond. Dramaturg John Glore. Stage manager Julie Haber. With James Olson, Pamela Dunlop, Rick Najera, Richard Doyle, Timothy Shelton, Jessica Drake, Mark Del Castillo-Morante. Plays Tuesdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7:30 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m. Closes Nov. 24. 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. (714) 957-4033.