- The Washington Times - Friday, January 28, 2005

In “Intimations for Saxophone,” the sax is variously described as “whiny” and sounding like the “moans of sad souls caught in purgatory.” That also would describe director Anne Bogart’s visually chic but emotionally straggling production of Sophie Treadwell’s never-staged play about a young woman’s restless search for self.

Written in the 1930s and extensively reworked for decades, Miss Treadwell’s play is a prime example of American expressionism, combining on- and offstage voices, industrial and mechanical sound, dance and jazz to create a theatrical experience that breaks all the rules of classical structure.

“Saxophone” was discovered in 2001 by dramaturge Michael Kinghorn, who brought the play to Arena Stage and wrote this adaptation from nine versions of the play he found in various archives and libraries.

The result is more of a mood piece or assemblage than a play, giving us a fragmented look into the fractured mind of a rich woman from 1920s America who knows she wants out of her unfulfilling marriage but doesn’t know what to pick from the baffling, rapidly changing array of choices available to her.

Lily (Karron Graves) is something of a clean page when we meet her. Convent-educated, Lily, whose sleekness reminds one of an art-deco hood ornament, seems pure and untested as she rushes docilely into an arranged marriage to Gilly (Barney O’Hanlon).

Gilly, a genial milksop with unbecoming feelings toward his mother — and vice versa — would be a shrink’s mother lode. He is sexually repressed, thanks to Mama, and views anything but spiritual love as shameful. As portrayed with genteel sensitivity by Mr. O’Hanlon, Gilly comes off as a good man — messed up but decent, and devoted to Lily.

On the other hand, Lily, who displays all-American gumption and forthrightness, never rouses our sympathy. As played by Miss Graves, Lily seems coldly adrift, frivolous and cushioned by money.

The marriage is doomed from the start, and after a few years, Lily becomes increasingly antsy and isolated.

An affair with a cheesy nightclub dancer and knife thrower (Marcus Kyd) provides a few empty thrills and ensuing angst. She thinks she has found “the answer” in a guru-novelist, Kartner (Christopher McCann), who writes books with an uncanny understanding of women, but even that proves disappointing.

For a while, it seems that smoking is the only productive thing in Lily’s life, until she stops looking outside herself for answers and begins searching inside.

Ironically, for a play that ultimately is about an inner journey, the finest thing about Arena’s production of “Saxophone” is the way it looks and moves. Neil Patel’s set is an inlaid wood platform ringed by round cafe tables and fringed lamps, resembling a nightclub where the have-nots are kept away by a velvet rope.

James Schuette’s exquisitely trimmed chemises look like couture from 1920s Vogue. Every detail — from the acid-green stockings and shoes matching a satin slip dress of the same hue to the silk flowers trellised on the smallest of spaghetti straps — is impeccable. These are clothes to die for.

Miss Bogart, artistic director of SITI (Saratoga International Theater Institute Company), employs her trademark use of stylized, individually calibrated movement in “Saxophone” to mostly striking effect.

Every character is constantly on the move, but in unique ways. Mr. O’Hanlon’s period dances are sprigged with buoyant life, in some places taking the place of real action or insight.

Even when sitting still, the characters are doing something, such as impatiently drumming their fingers on the tables. Some of the movement is self-consciously arty, as the actors move big pieces of luggage on- and offstage with an air of studied gravity and rearrange chairs as if trying to figure out how Stonehenge is supposed to be configured.

A few of the dance sequences are serious misfires, such as the supposedly torchy number by the club dancer who inflames Lily’s heart and the eleventh-hour spin around the floor by the cast that takes the place of a satisfying resolution. “Saxophone” does not actually end but peters out like a horn player who runs out of breath.

The production’s emphasis on visual pizazz and movement, which frequently lapses into slapstick, proves to be both the blessing and the bane of “Saxophone.” The show has a brittle briskness, a lack of depth that ultimately makes even the endless dancing legs and feet seem plodding and forced. Like the play’s heroine, this “Saxophone” is all motion and no essence.

**

WHAT: “Intimations for Saxophone,” by Sophie Treadwell, adapted by Michael Kinghorn

WHERE: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Feb. 27.

TICKETS: $45 to $59

PHONE: 202/488-3300

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