'By the Waters of Babylon'

Theater Critic

Catherine, a well-off widow who has kept her figure, hires Arturo, a sexy day laborer with a soulful stare, to clean up her overgrown garden. OK, everyone, you have two minutes to write in the rest of the plot. The only ground rules are that it can't cross the line into porn or use too many metaphors from the world of botany.

While I'm waiting for your submissions, let me fill you in on how Robert Schenkkan handled this scenario in "By the Waters of Babylon," his two-character play about a lonely eccentric in a sleeveless day dress and a Cuban worker with a somber literary air who let a few mojitos tempt them away from their silent suffering. Before you know it, he's giving her dance lessons and they're performing CPR on each other's scarred souls.

The play, which opened Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse in a production starring Demián Bichir and Shannon Cochran, makes a bold stab at transcending its rather hackneyed material with a psycho-theatrical climax that partly explains the strange title of a work set in Austin, Texas. (Hint: There's a kind of baptism by low tide.) But no amount of exotic garnish can disguise the origins of this recipe's canned ingredients.

Dramas don't have to be strikingly original to be good. But they better be convincing if they're old hat. On this score, Schenkkan, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his ambitious epic "The Kentucky Cycle," comes up short. No one's arguing that lady bosses don't on occasion fall into the sack with the hired help, especially when they're as seductive as Bichir's raking and weeding pin-up. Yet Catherine and Arturo's story, leaking with traumatic history and bounding toward melodrama, seems more contrived than inevitable.

The devil is in the lack of details. Catherine is less a character than a set of conditions for a creaky tale of uplift. Living alone in rundown affluence, she spills secrets about her past, cracks jokes that mark her as liberal but not too liberal, and exudes a neediness that would have most passers-by running for the hills.

She has personality traits but no core. Schenkkan top loads her with sadness yet denies her an identity. Her late husband was an abusive, hard-drinking professor, and she's not too broken up about his death. In fact, a couple of the neighbors think she might have had something to do with his untimely demise, one of the reasons she's become a neighborhood pariah. (The kooky demeanor doesn't help either.)

Arturo is a refugee from Castro's Cuba, a writer who made a dangerous voyage by boat to escape the censorship that threatened to suffocate his art. Unfortunately, he was the sole survivor of the trip, and the guilt has dried up his inspiration.

Both characters have lived through extremes. But before we can shed tears over their wounds, we have to get to known them as ordinary individuals. Schenkkan sets up obstacles, then he throws in a gun.

Friendless and childless, Catherine has lost the art of small talk. Instead of engaging in conversation, she launches into self-dramatizing routines that turn increasingly menacing. And Arturo broods poetically until rum loosens his tongue and then he's suddenly more forthcoming than a guy on a computer dating service with an advanced degree in social work.

Cochran can be a marvelously observant actress. Her performance off-Broadway in Tracy Letts' "Bug" was one of the finest examples of realistic acting I've come across in a long while. But here, under the direction of Richard Seyd, she's playing big to compensate for her role's vagueness. And at times she slides into a Laurie Metcalf impersonation to keep things lively.

Bichir, an acclaimed Mexican actor with a rising reputation in the U.S., fares better in keeping his portrayal within believable limits. He's connected to Arturo's pathos, respecting his story too much to fall for Schenkkan's exaggerating bait. And it's easy to understand why he was cast as the man to make Mary-Louise Parker's heart race on Showtime's "Weeds." But his authenticity is tested by the writing.

The production design, featuring Michael Ganio's outdoor and indoor sets enhanced with a lush video backdrop, allows us to inhabit this forlorn Southwestern enclave. There's a cut-off feeling, as though Arturo and Catherine have jointly reached a dead-end.

By bringing together two such divergent characters in need of mutual healing, Schenkkan is employing a tried and true dramatic device. In Tennessee Williams' plays, strangers are often cropping up to reveal that "sometimes -- there's God -- so quickly!"

But "By the Waters of Babylon" doesn't have the necessary lyrical touch. It's blunt where it should be reticent, and strained where it should be suggestive and still.

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