As the premiere run of Chester Bailey comes to its close tomorrow night at ACT’s Strand Theater, it leaves us with questions only brand new theater can bring about. Reactions to Joseph Dougherty’s new play have ranged from ‘best world premiere in recent memory’ to ‘could use more surprises,’ from ‘captivating’ to ‘underdeveloped.’ It is all these things and more. The story of Chester (Dan Clegg), a young man living in Brooklyn during WWII left disabled and delusional from a serious accident, and his therapist Dr. Cotton, a clever but resigned man faced with difficult decisions in both his personal and professional life (David Strathairn), is most resonant with audiences not because it is especially unique or powerful on its own. However, it does imitate life in the way theater usually does not–it lacks answers, and it lacks resolution.
ACT consistently delivers beautiful, crisp, and unique productions with its talented staff of designers and producers, and Chester Bailey is no exception. The unchanging set lends itself to the imaginations of both main characters. As the lighting changes with subtle expertise, tall scaffolding becomes the majestic promises of Chester’s perception of Pennsylvania Station just as easily as it becomes the intimidating obstacles of Dr. Cotton’s description. Lighting also supplements the performance’s limited use of props. The accident that leaves Chester without hands, eyes, and an ear is an attack with a torch by his syphilic coworker in the navy yard. Short, concentrated bursts of light become the slashes of the torch as accompanying sound effects paint a metaphorical, powerful image of the attack. These are the details that, throughout this performance and others, put ACT productions at a level of innovation and impact above most. Chester Bailey reminds us that no matter the content, the creative and management teams at ACT make something bold and beautiful.
But these production elements cannot stand alone without the right material and actors. The program cover of Chester Bailey depicts a light, antique sketch of a human brain slice above the title text. Most of the substrates of Chester’s brain work quite well, but they do not work properly together to allow him to perceive reality. Chester Bailey operates in much the same way as Chester’s brain–well-done components that together, do not add up to an optimal, seamless play. These disjointed elements are most immediately evident in the actors’ performances. Clegg portrays Chester as hopeful, enthusiastic, easily rebuffed, and childlike, all with a heavy 1940s New York accent. At first, his imaginative wonder and youthful disappointments establish an endearing base to build the development of his delusions about his disabilities and relationships upon, but his characterization instead remains stagnant. On the other side of the stage, Strathairn plays Cotton as straightforward, natural, wry, and usually unperturbed. His conversational realism borders on rushed flatness. The two acting styles do not go together–one is too much of a puppylike caricature, the other has too flat an affect. If their performances had more common ground, I would better believe that they are living in different worlds, rather than that they belong in different shows.
Despite this unsettling disparity, both actors are overflowing with talent, commitment, and their own approach to believability. Their respective believability declines over the course of the show because the material of the play is predictable and stagnant. Some thematic parallelisms that could be poignant instead read as overt, such as Chester and Cotton’s intertwined monologues (the structure of most of the show) about the women they love but cannot attain, their sexual encounters, and even their emotional responses to late nights in Penn Station. The motifs of fire and light, vision and blindness, and memory and imagination are so blatant that they become trite. Structurally, the interwoven monologues feel like an introductory technique. Once the characters interact for the first time, the play should continue as a dialogue in order to build the characters as both individuals and within the context of their relationship. Instead, most of the play continues as separate monologues, and neither character has the opportunity to grow. The biggest weakness of the writing is that the characters tell rather than show; they explain rather than feel. The few catalysts for development, though meant to be shocking twists, are so set up throughout the show that they become expectations rather than surprises.
Most excellent theater takes its audiences into a world where viewers feel invested in the characters and events such that, for an hour or two, they become real. Chester and Dr. Cotton, ever immersed in their parallel fantasies, never become real. But despite this pitfall and its rippling effects in the final performance, Chester Bailey poses powerful questions. Politically, we must think about where someone like Chester, with his disabilities, delusions, and lack of family, would go and how he would live in today’s social structure that lacks effective and accessible mental health institutions. Ethically, we must think about information exchange in doctor-patient relationships and freedom of choice, even when the choice seems unimaginable. Intellectually, we must consider whether reality and lived experiences are a spectrum rather than a binary between real and delusional, healthy and unhealthy.
Chester Bailey does not succeed in bringing audiences to another world, but it succeeds in bringing the difficult questions in our world to us. The play ends with little growth or resolution for either character, in frustrating opposition to typical storytelling. But this is the most real element of our world that Chester Bailey reflects back at us. Situations are often too complex for simple answers or answers at all, people struggle to change, and things happen that we simply live with rather than grow from. It is not the plot that is filled with surprises. It is the fact that while watching disjointed characters in a 1940s hospital room, we see our world, relationships, and realities in theirs—not because it captures human nature and emotion, or because it creates a strong connection to the characters, but because it is murky and inconclusive and remains murky and inconclusive. This reflection of reality that deviates so greatly from the typical style and impact of theater is the biggest surprise in Chester Bailey, and its greatest success as a new play.