IN LOCAL PLAYWRIGHT Elizabeth Heffron's New Patagonia, Karl Kroeger (John Seitz), a dying Beat-like author from the '60s, wryly observes that he's living "life in the past tense." Eager to bask in his former glories, he and his loopy friend Tank (Charles Dean) are holding a wanna-be Woodstock they've labeled the Orgasmic Mass of the Belated Undead. The gathering draws purpose-hungry revelers and Karl's long-lost son. If you've guessed that Karl's present becomes tense, you're right.
Seattle Repertory Theater ends December 23
Thanks to the critical rediscovery of one of his books, Karl is newly ensconced in temporary comfort. Though he's being cared for, in every sense, by his nurse, Angel (the always personable Cynthia Jones in a thanklessly sunny role), even she can't soothe him into a smooth reunion with Jesse (Quentin Mare). The resentful young man, whom Karl hasn't seen in 16 years, works in television now and has, at the old man's request, come to tape the Mass, surprising him with a grandson (Jesse Lee Thomas) in tow.
In this world premiere staged at the Rep by artistic director Sharon Ott, nearly every expected confrontation is capped by an explanation letting us know what the fight really meant; Ott doesn't solve anything by accentuating it with the sort of visibly clenched silences, slow exhales, and dramatic downstage crosses that wouldn't look out of place on All My Children. She puts a fine point on things, which Heffron has already pointed far too much herself (the capable Mare spends a regrettable amount of time suffering in close-up).
Although Seitz is convincingly weary and embattled, he's inappropriately tidy with his chores—every "shit" and "man" sounds carefully placed. Much of this production comes across as a choreographed idea of how quaint people from the '60s can seem today. This is never more apparent than when Lori Larsen comes onto the scene as Roxie, "a former major fuck" of Karl's, and promptly steals the show. Larsen curses as though it were simply the quickest way to express herself, and she's so good, so that person, that she exposes the holes in the rest of the production.
YOU CAN'T ARGUE that Heffron doesn't have a feel for the singularly orgiastic promises of the '60s. Her jazzy semiparody of horny Beat writing is dead-on: Karl's book, which he reads at the festivities, teems with "invigorated arrows" and "dark oyster universes." She also clearly (perhaps too clearly) articulates the gap between Karl and his son; a bit with Jesse presenting a coffeemaker is apt and funny and nicely handled all the way around.
Yet she delivers too much of it as a joke—a smiling joke, to be sure, but a joke just the same—and what isn't smiling is uncomfortably forced. Kroeger's beloved daughter, it turns out, met a grim fate as a free-spirited hitchhiker. This comes as a nastily artificial revelation, especially since it's immediately followed by a terrible bit that has Roxie wielding a machete and moaning about never having had a sufficiently stable existence to buy a dog (even Larsen can't pull off that one).
In the play's single best line, Jesse complains that his carefree upbringing has scarred him so much that "even my son feels like plastic." If Heffron's play had truly been about that, she'd have been on to something. As it stands now, the '60s end up being little more than a new backdrop for the time-worn premise about a curmudgeonly old man and the child who needs to feel loved. You don't want to go into a play expecting counterculture and come out with On Golden Pond. Heffron's effort would have more weight if she gave Karl's past a little more credit, if she had truly seen what sparkled about the time before delving into the dirt.