Directed by Anisa George
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“It’s like all sandwiched together. And so they tesser to this other planet and Ms. Whatsit turns into this weird horse with wings kind of thing, and the earth from where they look far off is half under the power of this Black Thing.” (Peggy to Salinger)
Margaret (Peggy) Salinger, daughter of J. D. Salinger, is a character in Anisa George’s “Holden” currently running at the New Ohio Theater and part of the Ice Factory Festival 2015. What is certain in “Holden” is that at the age of ten Peggy could have been reading Madeleine L’Engle’s science fantasy novel “Wrinkle in Time.” What is also certain is that nothing else in “Holden” really could have taken place. Anisa George tessers the audience to “this other planet” that is J. D. Salinger’s writing bunker “which (in Peggy’s words) is this way where you can go from one place to another, kind of like time travel, in the sense that you go to another place, but you don’t really change what time you’re in.”
Two infamous assassins and “lovers” of “The Catcher in the Rye” Mark Chapman (played with the perfect mixture of adolescent ambiguity and latent pathology by Jaime Maseda) and John Hinckley (played with a weird demonic innocence by Scott Sheppard) end up in J. D. Salinger’s (played with a poetic winsomeness by Bill George) writing bunker along with Zev (played with unwitting worldly wisdom by Matteo Scammell) who, although he is not a lover of the Salinger classic, is an “unambiguous lover of guns.” To confirm young Peggy’s (played with youthful charm and naiveté by Adele Goldader) assessment of everything being “sandwiched together,” none of these characters ever met in real life and there was never a time Peggy was 10 and Mark Chapman was 25 since they were both born in 1955. Chapman and Hinckley have hunkered down in Salinger’s bunker in Cornish, New Hampshire to convince him to finish and publish his final novel (perhaps “Hapworth 16, 1924?”) and interact with the reclusive author in a delicious matrix of magical realism. On this same “planet” and yet in a seemingly parallel time, Salinger interacts with his daughter who lives up in the house with her mother. Feeling “tessered yet?
Ms. George and the ensemble cast have concocted an engaging theatre piece that seems to raise the kinds of questions J. D. Salinger was dealing with in the iconic “The Catcher in the Rye” and an ancillary theme of whether or not the dense rich text of the novel can act as an assassination trigger. It certainly does not raise the same kind of existential questions in Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit” which with it has been loosely compared. Indeed, the three young men cannot exit the bunker (“Can’t do that!”) but there is no indication Ms. George is trying to affirm that “hell is other people.” Her existential concerns are capable of standing on their own without the underpinning of Sartre’s novel.
In real life on a real planet, both Chapman and Hinckley “used” “The Catcher in the Rye” to substantiate their Holden-like disdain for the status quo and for dishonesty and other significant issues raised by teenage angst and alienation. In their case, that disdain resulted in taking the lives of others. But are not these two “boys” children who failed to be caught before falling out of innocence and into the pernicious abyss of the adult world? In the parallel story mentioned above, Salinger “catches” Peggy from her “Wrinkle in Time” nightmare and assuages her fears by telling a marvelous story of the alligator who swallowed the monster.
Under Ms. George’s meticulous direction, the ensemble cast delivers remarkable and memorable performances that transfix and transform the audience and deliver them to the doorstep of perhaps life-altering decisions. The long discourse about the “Bhagavad Gita” is not frivolous filler. Dharma, duty, maya, and illusion are themes relevant to “Holden’s” expansive umbrella of important, redemptive, and cathartic themes. Nick Benacerraf’s set design and Seth Reiser’s lighting design transport the audience – tesser them – to the formidable bunker where all things are “sandwiched together” and Anisa George’s script works its magic.
As Peggy enters the bunker at play’s end, Zev escapes and the audience will never know if he will find his “catcher in the rye” or whether he will become a mass murderer who manages to break the record of sixty-nine in gun-shooting fatalities. But the audience does know that Chapman and Hinckley “lay their hands on father and daughter” as they sleep and the lights fade. Perhaps in the midst of alienation and angst (at any age) and in the midst of horrific events (natural and human-made) there is redemption. Perhaps as we wade through the rye there is or will be someone prepared to catch humankind and keep it from falling over the cliff.