Douglas Smith's setting for "Ten November" at the Los Angeles Theatre Center puts us at the bottom of Lake Superior, where the S. S. Edmund Fitzgerald sank in a great storm 14 years ago. The cracked floor conveys the stress that broke the vessel in half, and the dank light (Anne Militello was lighting designer) evokes the cold that no man could survive for more than an hour.
Yet at one point a softly glowing table rises from the floor, and we're in the wardroom of the ship as its crew drinks coffee. These are the images that linger from "Ten November"--not its text.
Since Steven Dietz directed the show, as well as supplying the text, he deserves some of the credit for its visual sureness. But it's not at all clear what story Dietz the writer wants to tell.
Not a conventional shipwreck yarn, surely. Dietz gives us the name and rank of the 29 men who went down with the Fitzgerald, but he deliberately steers clear of telling their individual stories. (He does let us hear from their widows--or somebody's widows.)
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 20, 1989 Home Edition Calendar Part 6 Page 7 Column 1 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
Mark Christopher Lawrence was misidentified as Jan Munroe in a photo caption accompanying a review of the play "Ten November" in Monday's Calendar.
Nor does he issue a clear finding as to why the huge ore ship foundered. It is implied that the hold was overloaded, that the ship shouldn't have been out on the lake in November and that the captain rarely scheduled lifeboat drills, but the points are fudged just enough to keep it from being an outright accusation.
Which leaves what? A defender of the play might call it a reverie--an examination of different ways of looking at a disaster at sea, plus whatever else floats to the surface of the playwright's mind. At one point, for example, a young man recalls the night his family couldn't find the TV trays and his father said: "Things don't just disappear!" At another point, someone yells: "Please do not digress!"
These are not very interesting remarks in themselves, and they don't achieve piquancy, irony or resonance in the context of the grim events being partway unfolded. Dietz's last play at LATC was entitled "Foolin' Around With Infinity." Here he's foolin' around with calamity, making it an experiment in non-linear narrative. That puts a large burden on his language (and that of Eric Peltoniemi, in the show's many sidebar songs) to be extraordinary. It is not.
Much of it is pretty corny. When a sailor tells us that "the lake, she is an icy magician," we wince--it's as bad as "Anna Christie's" "dat ole dabbil sea." When a woman sings about "the wee, wee hours of the morning," some of us may be reminded of an old joke about middle-aged bladders. This text is terrifically impressed with itself, yet it's also terrifically obvious.
So is the device of bringing three women out to sing ballads--three mischievous sirens who will later become heavy-hearted widows. ("My heart went down with that ship.") The strangest thing about "Ten November" is that it has jettisoned old-fashioned dramatic values that time hasn't necessarily rendered obsolete (such as the idea that a story is supposed to add up to something), while milking silly old-fashioned theatrical signals that went out with operetta. Its hearty sailors still hook their fingers in their belts, just like Popeye.
The acting over the evening is clean, but necessarily crude. The scenes at the hearing after the disaster are especially so, with witnesses and examiners yelling at each other as though the script had developed some meaningful conflict at this point, which is not the case.
Ric Stoneback is impressive as a series of large fellows, but in a faceless play, it is hard to play faces. Karole Foreman, Marsha Mercant and Jillsyn Michaels bring warmth and spirit to the role of the three sirens, making you wish they really were singing songs by Leonard Cohen. "Ten November" looks and sounds fine, but as a piece of theater writing, it is dead in the water.
Plays Tuesdays-Sundays at 8 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Closes July 16. Tickets $22-$25. 514 S. Spring St. (213) 627-5599. 'TEN NOVEMBER'
Steven Dietz's play, at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. Songs by Eric Peltoniemi. Producer Diane White. Set design Douglas D. Smith. Lighting design Anne Militello. Costumes Ann Bruice. Sound Jon Gottlieb. Stage manager David S. Franklin. With E.J. Castillo, William Dick, Karole Foreman, Danny Goldring, Mark Christopher Lawrence, Marsha Mercant, Jillsyn Michaels, Jan Munroe, Markus Redmond, Valente Rodriguez, Ric Stoneback, Harold Sylvester. Musicians Marcos Loya and Jeffrey Willkomm.