Edwardian Sensibilities

Edwardian Sensibilities

Director Robert Kalfin talks about restaging “Outward Bound”

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.

TOM: Heaven.

SCRUBBY: And Hell, too; (pause) it’s 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 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 — 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 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 discharged due to 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-man’s-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 Serling’s “The Twilight Zone” and the whole TV genre that followed.

“We’ve just had a run-through,” said Bob Kalfin. “The play is so constructed, it’s like a steel trap. It supports the actors, if they play it honestly, with sincerity. We’re not sending it up, or the time in which it’s set.”

But in that time, Sutton Vane had hard sledding.

“He couldn’t 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 the Second World War.

“Pretty far removed from what we’re doing,” Kalfin said dryly. “Among other things, it has Faye Emerson as a hard-boiled chorus girl who doesn’t exist in the original.”

It was “a British gentleman, an old friend named Joseph Harrow,” who brought “Outward Bound” to Kalfin’s attention and said, “I’d 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 Druten’s “The Voice of the Turtle,” Tina Howe’s “Museum,” and John Patrick’s “The Hasty Heart.”

Forsman told Kalfin he’d been thinking about “Outward Bound” anyway. “For Carl to do this kind of play,” says Kalfin, “is very courageous. He’s fantastic. He’s major.” Joseph Harrow is the show’s co-producer.

The Keens see their “mission” as the production of “sincere plays … generous in spirit … [demonstrating] that an earnest intent can still be sophisticated.” Or in Kalfin’s 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 you’re 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. Mark’s 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 don’t 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 didn’t 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. Peter’s Episcopal Church on West 20th Street and then at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, premiered such seminal events as Genet’s “The Screens,” Allen Ginsberg’s “Kaddish,” LeRoi Jones’ “Slaveship,” Edward Bond’s “Saved,” and David Storey’s “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 didn’t last long and,” says Kalfin cheerfully. “I didn’t last much longer. They threw me out when we did a reading of Archie Shepp’s ‘The Communist.’

“So I went to the Church of the Holy Apostles, on 28th Street, and was thrown out of there when we did a whole production of that play. That’s 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. He’s been invited to Russia twice, once in the 1970s,when it was still the USSR, and once in 1994, when it wasn’t.

“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 U.S.S.R., 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 Wilder’s ‘The Skin of Our Teeth,’ set in a world that has come through the Ice Age and the Flood.”

Bob Kalfin’s father was in real estate. His mother, Hilda Kalfin Epstein, a former kindergarten teacher, is 95, 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 that’s all right. Heaven, hell, it’s all the same thing.