April 16, 2013

Blind Faith Moves a Mountain at the Readers’

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There is no air on this Savage Mountain. Pummelling walls of ice, a lawyer and a physicist tear through the big questions of life and love, with more than a few raucous jokes thrown in. On a narrow ice ledge, thrust out from the formidable K2, two mountaineers are stranded. Their hopes of escaping the icy clutches of the world’s second tallest mountain are fading fast with the diminishing daylight. Taylor (Tim Mollen), a hardened district attorney, makes another troubled attempt to retrieve a rope crucial for the pair’s descent. He asks Harold (Eric Sterbenk), who is nursing a shattered leg, to talk to him. Harold, a mild-mannered physicist with a penchant for bawdy anecdotes, quickly turns from the banal to the sacred.

There are too many ironies in Patrick Meyers’ K2, which concludes the Readers’ Theatre 2012-13 season. Meyers drew on the experiences of the first American mountaineers who conquered K2 in 1978 for his screenplay; the main characters Harold and Taylor are based on Louis Reichardt and Jim Wickwire, respectively. It is poignant and sad that, in what could be their final conversation, Taylor and Harold rely on platitudes as they wrestle with the ever-elusive existential questions. Life is about “holding on,” Harold declares, as he takes another swig of oxygen from the mask firmly pressed against his face. In his hazy state, Harold’s offers somewhat grandiose statements about finding God in the details — in the study of quantum mechanics and in the creation of life. “I found God,” he says one moment, and in the next, “I saw God die.” He goes on to make the case for “blind faith.” His wife had a difficult childbirth, and confronted with the possibility of losing both his wife and son, Harold sought refuge in the hospital chapel. He prayed to a God he didn’t believe in, and the miracle he thought had no odds of happening occurred.

Bathed in memories of love, shared with his wife and son, Harold smiles meditatively. “Love is overpriced,” Taylor retorts, perhaps too bitterly. Taylor, who prefers womanizing to commitment, sees no need for the kind of wide-eyed romantic love Harold champions. He accuses Harold of being a romantic, and the two friends continue to squabble, even as they approach an inevitable question. In his weakened state, Harold is unlikely to survive another arduous descent. Left with only one rope, Taylor has to decide if he’ll go back alone, or die on the mountain with Harold.

On Wednesday evening, the Readers’ cast gave an unnerving performance of Meyers’ K2. The intensity of the show was remarkable considering the absence of majestic props like the famous 55-foot simulated ice wall that, in itself, earned applause during the 1983 Broadway production. Instead, these actors are armed only with music stands and water bottles. Still, the mountain roars and the snow rages, largely due to the intricate work of composer Peter Rothbart and classical guitarist Matthew Ocone. A narrator (Sonali Samarasinghe) reads the stage directions.

Meyers’ script is not without its faults — the characters make for an almost too stereotypical odd couple, and Meyers relies too much on clichés to convey gems of existential wisdom. Some critics have questioned the credulity of the dialogue when both characters are gasping for breath at 27,000 feet and are trying not to be buried by incessant onslaughts of snow. But under Anne Marie Cummings’ direction, Mollen and Sterbenk make the meandering dialogue feel gripping and realistic. A wild-eyed Mollen, who played the frenzied Vanya in the Readers’ production of Uncle Vanya last season, was consistently arresting as he growled and whimpered his way through Meyers’ sometimes tepid lines. Sterbenk, as Harold, managed to be believably calm and good-humored. His conversation is measured, yet effervescent.

As Harold and Taylor pause their frenetic debates to carry out “situation assessments,” the paltriness of their training in the face of the mountain’s treachery is all too clear. It makes you wonder: Why would anyone climb mountains for a hobby? If it’s mostly for the adrenaline, doesn’t that make the hobby a little too selfish? At one point, Taylor even exclaims that mountain climbing is only his pastime, not his life. The play raises so many important questions but resolves none — which is terrifying.

An hour after leaving the play I was still reeling from the intensity of Mollen and Sterbenk’s sparring, and perhaps something else. I felt as if I’d heard it all before, seen it all before. But which movie was that, exactly? Many of us are such accomplished procrastinators, we rarely get around to untangling the most basic questions about life, even when the impetus to do so persists everywhere we look. Look no further than Terrence Malick’s 2011 film The Tree of Life. Or, after an exasperating hour-long run about Taughannock Falls, peel a sheet of ice off a rock and hold it against the waning light.

K2 opens on Apr. 26 at the Black Box Theatre at Lehman Alternative Community School. For ticket details, visit www.thereaderstheatre.com.

Original Author: Daveen Koh