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The Long Christmas Ride Home by Paula VogelCar Trouble
By Alexis Greene

The Long Christmas Ride Home
By Paula Vogel
Vineyard Theatre
108 E. 15th St.
Box office: (212) 353-0303


The last new plays by Paula Vogel to receive major New York productions were The Mineola Twins and How I Learned to Drive. The first was a rambunctious feminist satire, the second, which won a Pulitzer Prize, a poignant drama of mingled love and sexual abuse.

Now Off-Broadway's Vineyard Theatre has produced Vogel's latest work, The Long Christmas Ride Home. But unlike the others it feels transitional, unfinished, as though Vogel were working out themes and characters that will appear more fully in another script, as yet unimagined. While alluding to Thornton Wilder's one-acts--The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden and The Long Christmas Dinner--and filled with references to Asian theatre, The Long Christmas Ride Home is at bottom simply a partially formed American family drama. Possibly autobiographical, it lacks the emotional force that autobiography, and drama, should possess.

Like Wilder's The Happy Journey, Vogel's Long Christmas Ride Home involves a family automobile trip. But Wilder stresses the supposed icons of the American family experience: unity, motherhood, children's moral upbringing. The one wrenching emotional incident, which occurs between the mother and her son, is apparently resolved.

By contrast, Vogel portrays a journey rife with anxiety and poisonous private thoughts. The father (Mark Blum) would rather be with his mistress than his wife (Randy Graff) or his three children, the youngest of whom, Stephen (Will McCormack), threatens to be carsick in the back seat. Christmas dinner with the mother's parents explodes in physical violence, as does the ride home. Momentary peace arrives only during a strange Unitarian church service, when the minister (Sean Palmer) shows slides from his recent trip to Japan, and unhappy Stephen absorbs their beauty and eroticism.

No one really recovers from that horrible car ride, Vogel's play tries to demonstrate. Stephen and his sisters, Rebecca (Catherine Kellner) and Claire (Enid Graham), grow up and enter unfulfilling, sometimes abusive relationships that are no better than their parents' marriage. The women behave self-destructively. Stephen contracts HIV and dies. But though she tries hard, Vogel never makes the children's grown-up lives as dramatic, or even as intriguing, as that never-to-be-forgotten Christmas journey.

Vogel filters her play through the prism of Japanese puppet theatre. During the car ride, the three children are represented by large puppets, the marvelous creations of Basil Twist. Bundled in winter coats and hats, the puppets perch on a high bench and are manipulated expressively by the three adult actors, who stand behind their charges and are aided, in the manner of Bunraku, by black-garbed puppeteers. In the style of much classical Asian theatre, a character often speaks another's thoughts. The father, sitting to one side, mimes shifting gears and at the same time voices the thoughts of his wife and his children. Both parents frequently refer to themselves in the third person. Only later in the play, when the children grow up, and the adult actors perform without puppets, do Stephen, Rebecca and Claire vent their own feelings.

Perhaps Vogel superimposes the techniques of Asian theatre to give a twist to the American family drama, which for decades has been unrelentingly realistic. In most of her plays Vogel has toyed with dramatic form. In works like The Baltimore Waltz, And Baby Makes Seven, and How I Learned to Drive, she consciously veers away from the connective psychological tissue that realistic writing allows. She asks us to fill the interstices of her writing and make our own connections. The Long Christmas Ride Home by Paula Vogel

But in The Long Christmas Ride Home Vogel puts us in a quandary. Form overpowers content. What, really, are we to make of this superimposed, pseudo-Asian style, except that it camouflages the play's weaknesses? What, after all, are we to make of these three children when grown, each standing outside a lover's door or beneath a window, spurned and angry? To be sure, childhood incidents can permanently traumatize us. But when they become adults, Stephen, Rebecca and Claire move us little. As in Baltimore Waltz, Vogel again seems to be writing about her beloved brother, who died of AIDS in 1988, but the Stephen we see here is a shadow of the human being in the earlier play. Here he is only someone who, when rejected by his much younger boyfriend, runs to a gay bar and hurls himself into ferocious, unsafe sex. The play essentially begins and ends during that horrific Christmas ride. The aftermath--whatever it truly was--remains untapped and unshaped.

Mark Brokaw, who directed How I Learned to Drive with such sensitivity and precision, brings the same eye for detail and nuance to The Long Christmas Ride Home. Vogel could not ask for a more exquisite production. From Basil Twist's puppets and Neil Patel's spare design (a stage of light-colored wooden flooring and wooden beams) to Mark McCullough's crystalline lighting, Jess Goldstein's costumes and David Van Tieghem's tinkling, percussive music, Brokaw has fashioned an elegant presentation. From the actors, especially Graff as the mother, he has drawn three-dimensional performances where dimensionality was not written. If at times the acting hits certain moments too hard, it is only that the actors have run up against Vogel's cumbersome style and, like this struggling play itself, found no way around it.



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