Review: `The Quality of Life’

Steven Culp (right), Laurie Metcalf (center) and JoBeth Williams star in Jane Anderson’s drama The Quality of Life at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater. Photos by Kevin Berne.

Powerful performances spark quality of ACT’s `Life’


The quality of mercy is terribly strained in American Conservatory Theater’s The Quality of Life, a deceptively accessible new drama written and directed by Jane Anderson.

A savvy TV writer turned playwright, Anderson understands the science of dialogue and how familiar rhythms can lull an audience into that comfortable, in-front-of-the-TV feeling. When the play starts, we’re in the Ohio living room of grieving parents Bill (Steven Culp) and Dinah (JoBeth Williams). He’s reading the paper; she’s knitting. And they’re trying not to talk about the violent death of their only child, a college-age daughter.

From the comfy confines of a Midwestern home, Anderson takes us to the burnt-out Oakland hills and the ruins of what was, for several decades, the home of Dinah’s cousin Jeannette (Laurie Metcalf) and her husband, Neil (Dennis Boutsikaris).

Rather than relocate or rebuild, Jeannette and Neil have chosen to live amid the ashes in a yurt, a Mongolian-designed tent, and to install solar panels that run their computers and their makeshift outdoor kitchen. Household items destroyed in the fire now hang from the dead trees like modern art – melted aluminum window frames, stained glass-like melted bottles, etc. – and for personal needs, there’s a composting outhouse and a claw-foot tub for cleansing soaks.

Jeannette, a poet, and Neil, a socio-cultural anthropology professor, are attempting to exist in a post-disaster paradise of sorts, but there are two major intrusions. One is that Neil’s cancer, which began in the prostate, has spread, and he is now in the final stages of a painful illness. The other is a well-intentioned but awkward visit from the Ohio relatives.

Anderson’s structure is, at first, easy to assess: we’ve got “godless, self-serving liberals,” a variety of which is not uncommon in the Bay Area, and we’ve got born-again Christians from the Bible Belt. Ready, set, clash!

When the topic of conversation turns to issues of faith, drugs or evolution, we get standard-issue responses from both sides. But Anderson is a smart writer who allows her characters dimension beyond dogma, and soon the interactions are deeply personal and guided by rage, fear, grief and doubt.

The two-hour play—unfolding on a beautifully detailed, realistic set by Donald Eastman — builds undeniable momentum. Act 1 ends with a shocker, and Act 2 jumps right into a powerful life-and-death intensity. There’s ample humor along the way, especially when Dinah tries her first hit of pot, but make no mistake. This is pure drama.

Where Anderson stumbles is at the end, or maybe I should say ends, plural. She doesn’t know how to conclude the play, so she does it about three times, never quite successfully. If the play, produced in association with the Geffen Playhouse, which hosted the play’s premiere last year in Los Angeles, and Jonathan Reinis Productions, is going to head, as rumored, to New York, the end must be addressed.

Neil delivers a final, fascinating lecture, but it’s hard not to think about the late Randy Pausch, and his bestselling book, The Last Lecture. And the two scenes that follow don’t have the emotional impact a play this emotionally alive deserves.

The Quality of Life, for all its assets as a powerful play, is also a showcase for some incredible actors giving performances so natural, so powerfully connected to one another that they can make you forget you’re watching actors famous for being on TV.

Metcalf’s hip, artsy Jeannette never lets you forget her Midwestern roots, even though she herself might want to. Her connection with Boutsikaris’ Neil, a brilliant, affable man trying to make peace with mortality, is profound. This couple’s deep love is key to the plot and offers the play’s greatest emotional touchstone.

Culp has the toughest role as the righteous, rather narrow-minded Bill, who foists his god on anyone he feels might be on the wrong path, which, of course, Neil and Jeannette are. But rather than come off as a brain dead stiff who spouts the God line, Culp’s Bill is clearly guided in his spiritual rigor by the loss of his child and a grief so debilitating he likely couldn’t move without the lifeline of faith.

And then there’s Williams’ Dinah, who made my heart ache. Because Dinah is a kind woman who has devoted herself to family, she could be easily dismissed as a robo-homemaker or a Jesus freak who could use a dose of enlightenment and women’s lib.

But Dinah is bright, empathetic, nurturing and impossible to dismiss. She has a sense of humor, a sense of adventure and a clear enough sense of her life to know people like Jeannette and Neil might find her ridiculous or, worse, boring.

Her connection to God isn’t nearly as sure as her husband’s, and she’s got far too much life left in her to let the waves of grief that submerge her completely pull her under. Dinah is a strong, beautiful woman. We recognize her and love her, and that’s one of the reasons the ending is dissatisfying: it shortchanges Dinah’s emotional journey.

Everyone in this four-hander pulls his or her emotional weight, and even with its muddled ending(s), The Quality of Life is a rich, satisfying theater experience that engages the head and especially the heart.


The Quality of Life continues through Nov. 23 at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $17-$82. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

Review: `Blackbird’

Opened May 2, 2007 at American Conservatory Theater

ACT ruffles feathers with controversial Blackbird drama
two [1/2] stars Provocative

David Harrower’s Blackbird, now at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, is part of what you might call “the theater of discomfort.’’

The goal of this type of theater seems to be the instigation of controversy, which can play out in several ways. In the best instance, audience members are challenged by what they see and are spurred to lively discussion and debate.

Another scenario has people being disgusted and angered to the point of stomping out of the theater or canceling their season subscription.

There will likely be more of the former than the latter with “Blackbird’’ because director Loretta Greco’s production is solid and sensitive, with fine performances from her two actors, Steven Culp and Jessi Campbell.

The provocative topic of this British play is pedophilia. Fifteen years prior to the start of the play, Ray (Culp), then 40 years old and at a difficult point in his life, had a months-long affair with Una (Campbell), who was 12 at the time.

Ray served three years and seven months in prison, changed his name to Peter, relocated and attempted to move on with his life.

By some strange stroke of fate (or the playwright’s pen), Una discovered Ray’s whereabouts and decided to confront him at his place of work.

That’s where we are when the bright flash of fluorescent light reveals Una and Ray, standing in a nondescript, garbage-strewn conference room (set by Robert Brill, lights by Russell H. Champa). They stare at each other, with fear, panic and agitation marking their faces.

It’s about 15 minutes into this 90-minute one-act play that we get any mention of Una and Ray’s past relationship, but from then on we get all the sordid details – ALL of them.

There’s no way in 90 minutes that the complex issues of childhood sexuality, adult responsibility, child abuse and the nature of love can be dealt with in any way other than in outline form. And that’s what Blackbird feels like – an outline for a more fully developed play of more length and depth.

As it is, Blackbird is a charged evening that provokes more questions than answers.

Harrower plays with our sympathies by trying to make a Ray a compassionate pedophile who swears he’s “not one of them’’ and that Una was special, the only child he ever desired.

Una goes from angry and vengeful to sexy and confident to scared and clinging. Such a wide range of emotional states makes her a tricky character. Though Campbell burns with intensity, Una seems more fictional than Ray – a vessel for debate topics more than a flesh-and-blood person.

Culp’s Ray is a study in contrasts. He has perpetrated one of the worst crimes imaginable, and he knows it. But in his mind, he paid the price and deserves another shot at life.

Harrower is careful to point out that Ray’s crime and punishment occurred before the passage of laws creating a public register of sex offenders, which helps explain how Ray is able to make such a clean start.

Una’s sudden appearance is an attempt at what? To derail Ray’s rebuilt life? To gain closure? Harrower suggests that love may have been part of the equation 15 years ago. It definitely was for Una, who was devastated by Ray’s abandonment of her. But the inevitable dramatic catharsis is too easily won.

Harrower displays intelligence and dramatic flair, but in cramming the play with so many issues and then leaving so much mysterious, he makes the drama more about him as a writer than about the characters themselves.

That bleeds the soul from the play. Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive and Martin Moran’s The Tricky Part both dealt with child sexual abuse, and both managed to do it with soul.

Blackbird raises difficult issues, takes surprising turns and asks us to create a whole play from dramatic pieces that don’t fall together. There’s plenty of flash, but no sustained illumination.

For information on Blackbird visit

Culp flies with `Blackbird’

Steven Culp, whom you might recognize from his stint as the late Rex Van De Kamp, husband of Martha Stewart-wannabe Brie Van De Kamp on ABC’s “Desperate Housewives,” doesn’t want me to tell you much about the play he’s in at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater.

The play is Blackbird by British playwright David Harrower, and it is indeed an intensely tricky piece of work.

“I’d prefer it if audiences came in cold and just let the play unfold,” Culp says after a day of rehearsals.

Yes, that would be nice, but Blackbird definitely is not for everyone. Like David Mamet’s Oleanna, a two-person drama about power shifts in a teacher-student/male-female relationships, Harrower’s play is about a man and a woman with a startling relationship.

About 15 years prior to the start of the play, Ray (Culp’s character) had a relationship with Una (played in this production by Jessi Campbell). But here’s the thing: At the time of their relationship, Ray was 40 and Jessi was 12.

Playwright Harrower says of the play, which also opened in New York earlier this month: “I don’t believe this is a play about pedophilia. And I didn’t want it to be. Yes, it discusses an illegal, under-age relationship, and in most people’s minds, the man would be termed a pedophile. … What interested me is how people then go on to deal with the consequences of their actions and desires, how they justify or explain to themselves the reasons for what they did.”

Culp, 51, doesn’t really want to address the issues in the play, but he will say that Harrower’s language, which can be sparse and full of pauses, reminds him of Mamet, Pinter and Albee.

“This language has to express the inexpressible,” Culp says. “What happens in the play involves moving beyond what these characters have been told by society, by therapists, by whomever. It’s full of the rawness of the inexplicable and the unknowable mysteries of the human heart. These are two human beings with a complexity of feelings for one another.”
Culp also sees the play as a “classic cathartic work full of pity and terror.”

Enough about the play he needs to promote but doesn’t really want to talk about. With his ongoing success in television — in addition to “Housewives” he was on “The West Wing,” “CSI” and “Star Trek: Enterprise” — Culp really didn’t need to go back to the theater.

But a fluke of scheduling, involving his new ABC series “Traveler,” which has delayed its premiere so as not to compete with “American Idol,” left him with time on his hands. He wanted a project, a theater project, to be specific, and it had to fit into his time frame.
Having worked at ACT about 15 years ago as Joe Pitt in Angels in America, Culp decided to check out the company’s Web site. He saw it had “Blackbird” on the schedule. Though he didn’t really know anything about the play, he called the casting director anyway.

“They sent me the script,” he recalls. “I read it and thought, `Oh, my God.’ I didn’t know if it was something for me, but then I couldn’t get it out of my head. My goal was to find something that took everything I had and more. The moral is: Careful what you wish for.”

The father of 5 1/2-year-old twins, Culp was hesitant to leave his family in Los Angeles, but he says he was convinced this was the best possible time for a theatrical challenge.

“Rehearsal has been fruitful,” Culp says. “Loretta (Greco, the director) has been great. I’m fully engaged.”

Culp pauses and offers a smile. “This kind of experience invigorates me,” he says. “But it’ll age me.”

Blackbird continues through May 27 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $17.50-$73.50. Call (415) 749-2228 or visit

Because of the play’s controversial nature, there will be audience discussions following each performance. There will also be two “Theater on the Couch” sessions in which members of the San Francisco Foundation for Psychoanalysis discuss the psychological aspects of the play after the shows on May 4, 6 (matinee) and 12.