Why Birdy can't fly.
by Cary M. Mazer
Philadelphia Theatre Company at Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey St., through June 28, 735-0631 or 569-9700Two teenagers from Philadelphia are perched precariously atop a gas tank five stories above the ground. One, nicknamed Birdy (Cory Shafer), reaches too far to grab a pigeon and, while his friend Al (Paul Dawson) watches, loses his grip and begins to fall through space. For a few extraordinary seconds, suspended by wires, the actor hangs in the air, slowly gyrating, until a coal-pile below miraculously seems to rise up to meet him as he falls. Birdy, and Birdy, Naomi Wallace's adaptation of William Wharton's novel, are airborne.
Wallace (a hot young American-born playwright who resides in England) adapted Wharton's 1978 novel for a production at the Theatre Royal, Plymouth in 1997 directed by Kevin Knight, which subsequently moved to London. That production has now been remounted by the same director with young American actors, and is making its first American appearance under the auspices of the Philadelphia Theatre Company. Like Birdy's flight a few minutes into the play, the play and the production often soar; and while they never crash, they occasionally land with not-so-gentle thuds.
Knight is also the production's designer, and has created a remarkable setting for the action for both time periods of the play - a two-story set on two concentric turntables with a steeply sloping roof - that is both astonishingly simple in its execution and absolutely magical in its power of transformation, and which enables him to tell Wallace's (and Wharton's) story with clarity and interest.
Much of the story is told in flashback. Al (now played by Jason Field), wounded in World War II, is brought to a psychiatric facility where Birdy (now played by Marcus Chait), after being missing in action in the Pacific for a month, perches, bird-like, in what has been diagnosed as acute catatonia. Al, it is believed, may hold a key to Birdy's withdrawal from the world. And so he does, not because of what he can tell the staff psychologist (William Parry), but because of what we learn about the relationship between the two young men enacted by the other two actors above them.
While Al, his face locked in vice-like bandages, sits in the cage-like hospital room, watching and spoon-feeding his silent and contorted friend, their younger selves clamber over the vertiginous sloped surfaces above them. The young Birdy's obsession with birds and flight, we learn, is linked to his awakening sexuality, his sublimated feelings for Al, and his unspecified relationship with his mother. And, we learn, Al is hardly the most stable or reliable therapeutic tool to draw Birdy out of his catatonia, as he is still crippled by the violent impulses that were beaten into him by his brutal father. They both seek control - over themselves, over their bodies, over their imaginations. And, we learn, the authoritarianism, brutality and random violence of the war has strained this desire for self-control to the breaking point.
When the focus is on the rooftops, the story is absolutely riveting. This is in part due to Shafer's rapt and gentle portrayal of Birdy, completely convinced of his power of flight and his ability to talk to individual pigeons under the El and with his growing collection of canaries. But it is mostly due to the extraordinary sexual tensions that get generated: when Al (in a sequence invented by Wallace) rehearses the reluctant Birdy in how to get to home plate with his prom date; and, in an exquisitely written scene, when Birdy gently serenades his favorite canary, likening himself to the wind that can lift the beloved bird and penetrate its wings.
The postwar story below is less successful, despite the utter fascination of Chait's physical transformation into a bird. The exuberant Al has become so cripplingly bottled up by his wartime experiences that the actor's performance can go nowhere. And the relationship between the two young men has become so obstructed by their respective disabilities that - with the exception of a remarkable moment when Al feeds Birdy, like a mother bird feeding a hatchling, from his own mouth - there's little drama or electricity at all.
All that changes when Al's anger finally bursts from its shell, Birdy emerges from his catatonia, and the play launches into a long discussion scene that is at once platitudinous and obscure. The real issues of the play - friendship, sex, control, self-control, and those wonderful homoerotic energies generated by the story of the characters' younger selves - never get further developed, let alone resolved. And a final image, designed to make us soar above the clouds with the characters in both their younger and older incarnations, seems instead to be derivative and perfunctory.
Just when we most want it to, we discover that Birdy can't fly after all.