Diagnosis: Hysterical BLINDNESS

blindness.jpgNobel Prize winner Jose Saramago’s novel Blindness is a deeply unsettling meditation on human nature and how quickly human society can unravel when people are gripped by irrational fear. In many ways its mood echoes the similarly cautionary tale of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which Godlight Theatre Company adapted strikingly well last year. So one would be justified in expecting that Joe Tantalo (founder/artistic director of the company) would have comparable success adapting Blindness for the stage. Unfortunately, the new production, which opened Tuesday at 59E59 Theatres, does not live up to those expectations. Despite the inherent tension of Saramago’s story, the plot drags here, with the most striking bursts being those of violence, making for a display that is often physically horrifying, sure, but that fails to strike the notes of moral horror Saramago achieved on the page.

The action has already begun when the audience enters – the whole of the large cast mills around on a wide corridor between two sheer white scrims that are never drawn up, peering out intently at the theatergoers spilling in through the doors; the audience is split into seats on either side of the corridor. Things get going for real when a man (no one in the show is given a name) suddenly goes blind while sitting in his car at a stoplight. Mike Roche plays the victim with slightly excessive and annoying spinelessness; he is taken home by a seeming Good Samaritan (Lawrence Jansen) who then steals the man’s car, an act of betrayal that foreshadows the way the rest of the play will unfold. He has little time to enjoy the car, though, as he and others all over the land begin to go blind and society spirals out of control; the first man and his wife, who also goes blind, are quarantined in one ward of a former mental hospital with several other characters who were all, one gathers, somehow infected by him, including the thief, whose bitterness Jansen plays with the same broad strokes as he did his character’s original kindness in helping the first man home. Amid the panic and despair, an eye doctor, now blind (Timothy Fallon) and his wife (Kristen Harlow), who is faking blindness in order to stay with him, stand as pillars of calm and reason even as the pace of the country’s deterioration quickens and the government ministers and soldiers responsible for the quarantined people go blind themselves and insist on being paid for food with money and then sex: David Bartlett and Gregory Konow play a blind accountant and an Army sergeant who are indistinguishable in their violence and disdain for human decency and whom they play with similar over-the-top relish.

With no props or set aside from the scrims, and all the actors reduced to groping around like children playing at Blind Man’s Bluff, Maruti Evans’s moody lighting may be the most genuinely expressive aspect of the production. The cast, with one exception, seems to take too much to heart the idea that blind people compensate for their lack of vision with enhancements elsewhere, the consequence being many noisy, melodramatic performances. No doubt everyone would be quite hysterical if the circumstances posited in Blindness actually came to pass – or something similar: a strain of bird flu transmittable among humans, to take one current example – but in order to make a play about such times meaningful to people who aren’t living in them, a director needs to insist on more restraint and subtlety. Here, Tantalo (director as well as primary adaptor) errs on the side of loudness and plain brute terror – shock and awe, if you will. From the start, everyone is shouting and shoving and crying and screaming far more than is necessary to get the point across, and so the audience is inclined to avert their eyes and cover their ears rather than to listen and contemplate what Saramago’s fable might tell us about what’s going on in our world right now. The exception noted is Harlow’s performance as the doctor’s resolute, principled wife, and it is not a coincidence that the most generous-souled person on stage is the one who has not succumbed to the blindness. One thinks at the beginning that the sickness is causing people to lose their wits, but the evidence of Harlow’s character says otherwise, figuratively and literally at the end when she goes blind as the rest are regaining their sight, and she muses upon the meaning of it all in a way that in another adaptation would have been overdoing it, but here provides the audience with one of the few straws available to grasp at to understand Saramago’s underlying intentions, or any substantive message.

The show is supposed to run about 90 minutes, and if it had there might have been more of a taut structure that would have reined in some of the excesses; however, it definitely went to almost two hours, and it was too much. Though there is a linear plot, it is difficult to see where it’s leading, so that all too many scenes meander interminably. Even more than the often melodramatic acting, this soggy plot work was what drained the play of the moral force one feels in Saramago’s novel. The frightening physical reality – the violence, the reduction of people to caring only about food and sex – is there, and is important, and there are points when parallels with real-world disasters or fears (Hurricane Katrina, Homeland Security’s increasing powers, Abu Ghraib, bird flu) arise to make the events unfolding seem relevant enough that the audience can draw its own conclusions. But those moments are all too fleeting, leaving only the shock value of what’s shown, which quickly becomes numbing.

Godlight’s tag line for the play is “A book everyone should read. A play everyone should see.” I didn’t expect a verbatim adaptation of the novel, but if Tantalo and his collaborators had hewed more closely to it, I might have been able to agree with the second half of that sentiment. But after having been impressed by the way Godlight made Fahrenheit 451 newly edifying, I have to admit to disappointment here. Exhausting to watch, Blindness never offers enough in the way of reflection or intellectual provocation to reward the audience for making it through the taxing whole. - Mallory Jensen

Blindness runs through April 8 at 59 E59 Theaters, 59 E. 59th Street, NYC.

mallory.jpgMs. Jensen is a writer in New York who works in book publishing when she is not attending an indie play, film, or concert.