It must have seemed like a good idea at the time: Use novelist Vladimir Nabokov's real cross-country drive from New York City to Palo Alto in 1941 as the armature upon which to hang a fiction about a Lolita-like character, who's every bit as unreliable a narrator as literature's most famous pedophile, Humbert Humbert. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, a lot, it turns out. To begin, Lolita Roadtrip, which runs through May 1, 2011, at San Jose Stage, telegraphs its plot clumsily. How else to describe the early scene in which Julia Martin (Chloë Bronzan) drops an armful of books in a library and cries out the name of the bombastic and pompous professor Paul Drake (Julian López-Morrillas), who we've just left trying to shock his students into wakefulness with a lecture on sex and death? A teenager in the library named Danny (Patrick Alparone) calls attention to Julia's outburst by asking her about it -- naturally, she nervously denies having even uttered Drake's name. Before long, Julia and Paul are confessing the circumstances that we can easily see led to Julia's childhood rape by the older man. Thus, the audience is forced to sit in the dark wondering how the act itself will ultimately be described, as we know it must.
In fairness to playwright Trevor Allen, whose original work was commissioned by PlayGround, the point may have been to make us squirm. But if so, director Lee Sankowich lets the air out of this road trip's tires by forcing his actors to deliver their dreamy, sometimes robotic, monologues while vaguely ambling around the stage. Sometimes Paul appears to stalk Julia as he Tweets his choppy yarn a sentence or two at a time. The proximity is supposed to creep us out, and it would except Julia always glides out of his pathetic path, as we quickly learn she always will. You can cut the lack of tension with a knife.
Julian López-Morrillas as Paul Drake, Stacy Ross as Mary Drake
To make matters worse, and for this Allen has only himself to blame, the play features not just one or two unreliable narrators, but four. Joining Julia and Paul for back-story time are Paul's wife, Mary (Stacy Ross), and Julia's cross-country road-trip partner, the kid in the library, Danny. Ross has the drama's most thankless role: the wronged, dying wife. Because her story is simply not as central to the play as Julia's, Paul's or Danny's, we keep waiting for her to reveal something other than her sense of betrayal by her husband. Nope. And it's hardly a surprise that she knows all about Paul's rape of little Julia all those years ago. How else will she be able to forgive him on her deathbed, which we can also see coming a mile away?
Chloë Bronzan as Julia Martin, Patrick Alparone as Danny
More interesting are Danny and Julia as they hit the road to trace Nabokov's route west. Julia is supposed to be unsuitably older than Danny (there are numerous laughs over their cultural divide), and their age difference is supposed to make us feel like her repressed sexual attraction for Danny is every bit as wrong as Humbert's for Lolita and Paul's for Julia. But young Danny is far from virginal, wiser in the ways of sex than the academic Julia could possibly imagine. Again, conflict is promised but not delivered. Still, it would have been interesting to let Julia and Danny learn a bit more about themselves via their adventures on the road (Ross livens things up by playing a string of terrific one-scene characters). Having seen the ending, I can see why Allen felt unable to go there, but if he ever decides to trade a portion of his play's artistic pretensions for some more story telling, he might succeed in mapping out a trip worth taking.
Lolita Roadtrip runs through May 1, 2011 at San Jose Stage. For tickets and information visit thestage.org.
All photos by Dave Lepori.