Off-Broadway Opts Not to Keep `Those the River Keeps'

THOSE THE RIVER KEEPS Play by David Rabe.

IT'S not really surprising that ``Those the River Keeps,'' David Rabe's first new play in years, closed Sunday after a mere six days of performances. Rabe directed the production himself, and, like many playwrights who direct their own work, he let things drag on too long. Also, his characters lacked the necessary force to sustain audience interest over the play's three hours.

Still, Rabe is a major playwright, and the Off-Broadway performance of ``Those the River Keeps'' was never uninteresting. In the second half, there is a startling image. Phil (played by Paul Guilfoyle) is a former low-level mob employee who is now struggling to forge a new life as an actor in Hollywood. Sal (Jude Ciccolella) is his former crime associate who is still in the business. He has come to Hollywood for unspecified reasons, but clearly one of them is to entice Phil back into ``the life.'' Phil resists - but career difficulties and his tortured relationship with his wife, Susie (Annabella Sciorra), weaken his resolve. He puts on his dark suit, with his dark shirt and dark tie, and quietly, he and Sal begin a slow dance.

It is, of course, completely unrealistic and out of character for these two tough guys, but such a vivid theatrical image represents the past's hold on Phil. Unfortunately, too little in Rabe's attenuated play comes close to matching the moment's impact.

As much as the scenes involving Phil and Sal have a certain menacing power, in no small part due to the arresting performances of the two actors, the scenes involving Phil and Susie are banal and irritating. Susie, 33, is desperate to have a child. Phil, who already has two children he abandoned from a previous marriage, had promised her that he would fulfill her wish but now is unwilling to do so. This leads to much arguing and fighting, until Phil finally strikes her, leading Susie to find solace with her neurotic friend, Janice (Phyllis Lyons), who dislikes Phil and urges her to find a ``surfer guy.''

Phil was a minor figure in Rabe's last play, ``Hurlyburly,'' but there he was surrounded by a fascinating and eclectic group of characters.

Although Phil's attempts to remake himself are certainly touching (he comes home from his latest audition toting a bag of Russian novels that the director suggested he read), he is not a strong enough character to support an entire play. Susie is even less interesting, with the character reduced to spending most the play whining, crying, and clasping a diapered teddy bear.

Sal, played by the charismatic Ciccolella, is the most compelling, with his air of danger and his numerous eccentricities. Rabe could have helped the piece with judicious editing, as well as the deletion of several speeches that seem far too elevated in their language for these characters. One wishes that the play had the sustained power of its best moments.

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