Kathleen Early and Joe Delafield in Keen Companys production of Sutton Vanes Outward Bound.
Outward Bound more relevant than ever
By Jerry Tallmer
TOM [a passenger]: Tell me tell me one thing now.
SCRUBBY [steward and barman]: Anything I can, sir.
TOM: Where where are we sailing for?
SCRUBBY: Heaven, sir.
SCRUBBY: And Hell, too; (pause) its the same place, you see.
All my life since the age of 14 or 15 I have been haunted by the barking of a dog, the smell of oven gas, the sound of a breaking window pane, intersecting with the voices of a young man and woman, Henry and Ann, deeply in love, calling desperately to one another from separating points along the deck of a mysterious, all but empty ocean liner plowing toward eternity across a darkened sea.
This week I found I was not alone not the only one so haunted.
Everybody you mention this play to has a memory of it, said Robert Kalfin, who at Urban Stages, on West 20th Street, has directed the Keen Company revival renewal is a better word of the mesmerizing Sutton Vane drama that had so deeply impinged itself on a kid watching the bigger kids do it at a high school in this city once upon a long time ago.
Bit by bit, the few passengers charming alcoholic wastrel, demanding rich-bitch, humble Cockney charwoman, obnoxious businessman, creepy padre, et al. get to learn (and dislike) more about their fellows than about where they are going, or why. Scrubby the barman, who has made this passage countless thousands of times, he knows.
And bit by bit, we, watching, get to know.
Sutton Vane, born in England in 1888, enlisted in the British Army in 1914, at the beginning of the Great War, and was invalided out for shellshock, quite possibly after the Battle of the Somme, where 19,000 British troops were slaughtered in the first half-hour on July 1, 1916, as they came up out of the trenches to try to cross No Mans Land. Outward Bound, written in 1923, was an indirect reflection on whatever it was that had happened to Vane.
It may be seen as the precursor not only to dramas like Death Takes a Holiday (1929) and On Borrowed Time (1938) but to Rod Serlings The Twilight Zone and the whole TV genre that followed. Not to mention Anne Mearas more recent and deeply disturbing After-Play (1995) or, for that matter, though any direct link is dubious, Jean-Paul Sartres Huis Clos (No Exit), written 1943-44 in Occupied Paris.
Weve just had a run-through, said Bob Kalfin. The play is so constructed, its like a steel trap. It supports the actors, if they play it honestly, with sincerity. Were not sending it up, or the time in which its set.
But in that time, Sutton Vane had hard sledding.
He couldnt get anybody to put it on, and finally did it in his own living room. Then it went from one theater to another, and finally to the West End.
It reached Broadway in 1924 with an all-star cast that included Alfred Lunt, Leslie Howard, Margalo Gillmore, Beryl Mercer, and Dudley Digges. A 1938 reprise, directed by Otto Preminger, starred Vincent Price and Florence Reed, with as Mrs. Midget, the humble charwoman none other than the Laurette Taylor who seven years later would give us an Amanda Wingfield of The Glass Menagerie that nobody would ever forget.
A 1930 Outward Bound film featured Leslie Howard, Dudley Digges, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Montagu Love, Beryl Mercer, and Alyson Skipworth, but better remembered is the 1944 remake called Between Two Worlds, starring John Garfield and updated to World War II.
Pretty far removed from what were doing, Kalfin said dryly. Among other things, it has Faye Emerson as a hard-boiled chorus girl who doesnt exist in the original.
It was a British gentleman, an old friend named Joseph Harrow, who brought Outward Bound to Kalfins attention and said: Id like to help you do it. Kalfin went to Carl Forsman, artistic director of the Keen Company, a unit which for five years now has done beautiful restorations of such works as John van Drutens The Voice of the Turtle, Tina Howes Museum, and John Patricks The Hasty Heart.
Forsman told Kalfin hed been thinking about Outward Bound anyway. For Carl to do this kind of play, says Kalfin, is very courageous. Hes fantastic. Hes major. Joseph Harrow is the shows co-producer.
The Keens see their mission the production of sincere plays
generous in spirit
[demonstrating] that an earnest intent can still be sophisticated. Or in Kalfins words, plays of heart, of human kindness, human betterment.
Square? Not a bit of it. Very daring, says Kalfin. I know playwrights who will not allow their plays to be done in New York because of the bitchiness and trendiness here. When you make yourself more important than the play youre writing about
Does that include the Gay Mafia? Yes, sure
The result is that New York becomes more provincial.
Bob Kalfin is pretty major himself. The first show he ever directed in New York was The Golem, at St. Marks Playhouse on Second Avenue, in 1959, from ancient Yiddish myth about a pre-Frankenstein monster who battles for the faithful. It was the era of Ban the Bomb. So this was a play about using a superhuman force to reduce your enemies.
I dont know much about religion, Kalfin says, but what Outward Bound basically deals with is something timeless. Every character in it has to deal with it. What did you do with your life? what they did and didnt do, could have done, should have done. With a laugh: I call it a Yom Kippur play.
A product of the Bronx, the High School of Music and Art, Alfred University, and the Yale School of Drama, Kalfin founded and ran the Chelsea Theater Center that, first at St. Peters Episcopal church on West 20th Street and then at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, premiered such seminal events as Genets The Screens, Allen Ginsbergs Kaddish, LeRoi Joness Slaveship, Edward Bonds Saved, and David Storeys The Contractor.
One day in 1965, Kalfin went into that church on 20th Street, near where he lived and still lives with his partner of many years.
I saw this huge naked Christ, suspended over the altar, with arms outspread, full genitalia, pubic hair. And I knew I could stage a theater there. That priest didnt last long and, says Kalfin cheerfully. I didnt last much longer. They threw me out when we did a reading of Archie Shepps The Communist.
So I went to the Church of the Holy Apostle, on 28th Street, and was thrown out of THERE when we did a whole production of that play. Thats when Harvey Lichtenstein of BAM invited me over to Brooklyn.
Kalfin has had triumphs on Broadway with Yentl, Happy End, and Strider, a play about a horse (from a Tolstoy short story) that he brought back from Russia. Hes been invited to Russia twice, once in the 70s,when it was still the USSR, and once in 1994, when it wasnt.
The most beloved playwright in Russia next to Chekhov is Tennessee Williams. The last time I was there, there were 13 Tennessee Williams plays being done in Moscow alone.
On the first trip, when I was invited along with seven other American directors, I did Eccentricities of a Nightingale, the play Tennessee wrote when he was unhappy with Summer and Smoke.
The second trip, right after the breakup of the USSR, I thought to myself, Okay, what play can I do in a country that has to start all over again from scratch? And came up with Thornton Wilders The Skin of Our Teeth, set in a world that has come through the Ice Age and the Flood.
Bob Kalfins father was in real estate. His mother, Hilda Kalfin Epstein, a former kindergarten teacher, is 95 now, and still tenderly says: Maybe we made a mistake with you. Maybe we should have sent you to law school.
The people within the people of Outward Bound at Urban Stages are William Edwin Henry, Kathleen Early, Joe Delafield, Gareth Saxe, Clayton Dean Smith, Susan Pellegrino, Laura Esterman, Michael Pemberton, and Drew Eliot.
Some of them Googled me, says Kalfin. I got scared to death. Scrubby the barman says thats all right. Heaven, Hell, its all the same thing.