Thursday, February 26, 2009

Theater preview: ‘Dangerous’ is McKeever’s walk on the dark side

David A. Rudd and Marta Reiman
in Caldwell Theatre's production of ‘Dangerous.’

By Hap Erstein

If you think you know Davie playwright Michael McKeever from last season’s knockabout farce Suite Surrender, or even such older comedies as Open Season or 37 Postcards, think again.

The diminutive, prolific advertising copywriter-turned-dramatist is in a distinctly darker mood with his new play, Dangerous, which premieres Friday at the Caldwell Theatre in Boca Raton.

Dangerous is his “deconstruction” of the 18th-century novel by Choderlos de Laclos, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the epistolary work dealing with sex as a blood sport, which was adapted for the stage by Christopher Hampton, then brought to the screen as Dangerous Liaisons, as well as Valmont and Cruel Intentions.

It was McKeever’s notion to set the action in the Weimar Germany of the 1920s. “I loved the novel,” he explains excitedly. “I always just found these people wonderful in their absolute horribleness. Because they’re so terrible, but so beautiful in how they do these terrible things. I said, ‘One of these days, that should be updated.’ ”

He first considered setting his play in Manhattan, in the latter days of the Bush Administration, until he settled on ’20s Berlin. “Now that’s decadent,” he says, savoring the thought. “A perfect breeding ground for that sort of story. And then literally it was like puzzle pieces clicking into place.”

The play begins as the Nazis are coming to power, at a time that “all these incredible art forms get born because there was no oppressive government overseeing any of that,” says McKeever. “Along with that came a sexual revolution. The rules all went away and so Weimar became a giant party time. That freedom brought with it hyper-inflation and the rise of the Nazis, who promised the Germans a strong Germany again. But at what cost?”

McKeever calls Dangerous a “deconstruction” of Laclos’s narrative because “about halfway through it, my characters just took on their own story lines. And there were a couple of characters I had simply fall away, because they were going nowhere. I kind of combined different characters and made male characters female and female characters male.”

One thing McKeever definitely specifies in his stage directions is frequent nudity. “I’m not a big fan of nudity in plays for the sake of nudity, but it can serve a purpose,” he explains. “In this case, in the love scenes, it shows vulnerability. It shows two people at their most intimate and if you have them dressed in lovely romantic outfits, it’s not quite what if should be.”

Nor does McKeever waste any time establishing the decadence of the evening. “I have one of the characters flashing the audience, it’s how the play starts,” he says. “It sets the tone, it lets you know where we are and where we’re going. It’s ‘Welcome to Berlin.’ It’s absolutely essential.”
Audience members have been warned about the nudity, which is mentioned in the show’s advertisements.

“It was done as a caution,” notes McKeever. “Who knew it was going to be the lure that it was.
“People forget that the Caldwell has done nudity for years. They did it back in Bent in the ’80s, and that was a big huge success. And Love! Valour! Compassion! and Take Me Out.”

Still, McKeever had his doubts that Dangerous was a good fit for the Caldwell. “Just by the nature of the subject and the harshness of some of the situations, I never thought the Caldwell would take it. I didn’t think it would appeal to Michael (Hall, the theater’s founding artistic director). But they put it in their reading series last year before they ever read it and the audience just loved it. I thought it was going to be too strong for the audience here, but they proved me wrong.”

Ironically, this play that he thought might be too dark may prove to be McKeever’s most commercial property yet. He is already very popular in Germany, where many of his plays have been produced, and his agent over there is already clamoring to get the finished script. “I just spoke with a theater in San Francisco and they’re interested in it for next season already,” says McKeever.

“There’s a whole market that I’ve never really touched and it may happen with this play.”
Speaking a week before the opening of Dangerous, McKeever concedes, “I’m always a wreck at this point. I hope for the best, I expect the worst.”

Regardless of the critical and audience reaction, he is on his third draft of his next play, which is already scheduled to open later this season. “The next show is called Lewd and Lascivious. It’s for GableStage, so it has to live up to that title.”

DANGEROUS, Caldwell Theatre Company, 7901 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton. From Feb. 27 to March 29. Tickets: $36-$42. Call: (561) 241-7432 or (877) 245-7432.

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