Holden, a dense one-act from Philadelphia’s George & Co., is a fascinating if sometimes baffling exercise in avant-garde psychological spelunking. With a powerful cast directed by Anisa George, it riffs off J.D. Salinger‘s famous retreat from publishing and the social world and the mysterious influence of his most famous novel, The Catcher in the Rye, on both Mark David Chapman (John Lennon’s killer) and John Hinckley (Ronald Reagan’s would-be assassin).
We’re in an isolated cabin where Salinger (Bill George) continues to write, but, instead of sending the manuscripts to a publisher, stashes them in a safe, presumably not to be seen until after his death. Three quasi-imaginary figures live there with him, calling him “the boss,” rushing to assist and encourage his work and tussling among themselves when he’s gone. Gradually we learn that they are constructs representing Chapman (Jamie Maseda) and Hinckley (Scott R. Sheppard) – perhaps Salinger’s internal conceptions of these men whose deeds weigh incessantly on his mind – and a third figure, Zev (Matteo Scammell), whose character and motivation appear only towards the end, blossoming into a terrifying sequence that put the madcap antics of the first two-thirds right out of my mind.
Shot through (no pun intended) with humor, those first two-thirds or more of the one-act’s 90 minutes are riveting, partly because we’re not sure what’s really happening, what’s in Salinger’s imagination, and how we are to understand the others’ presence and actions. Amid Nick Benacerraf’s masterpiece of a set, with its cords and cords of split firewood, flimsy cot, books, suitcases, and stove, they amuse, incite, bloviate. Now and then they even charm, though in an anxious sort of way, as when gun-happy Hinckley stands a toy soldier on a spinning LP, or Chapman with panicky agility stops Salinger’s young daughter Peggy (played with sheepish cuteness by fourth-grader George Truman) from opening the holy safe.
Yet sudden blasts of artillery fire and bright lights, presumably flashbacks from Salinger’s service in World War Two, send the serious-minded Chapman, the reckless Hinckley, and the murderous Zev diving for the floor. Suddenly they’re not so militant. And their obsequious deference to “the boss” never lapses. In one way or another, these are Salinger’s creatures as much as the eponymous Holden Caulfield is.
Peggy’s occasional presence helps humanize the writer, who, in Bill George’s subtly powerful performance, goes about in a muted haze, even when he’s typing a few words on his manual typewriter or going outside to chop more firewood. Similarly, there’s no active storyline, just a deeper and deeper look into – whatever this microverse is. But it’s consistently imagined, well acted, and coiled with tension and release.
Up to a point, that is. Eventually Salinger has some sort of revelation, types the long-awaited ending to his current work, and breaks into laughter. After that the action sags, the pacing loosens. It seems as if George & Co. weren’t sure how to bring things to a close, so they kept several potential endings. The actual final tableau is a good one, closing this very peculiar circle. But it’s not a satisfying close, because the momentum disappeared some time before, making the 90 minutes feel like more.
Still, if you have some tolerance for the avant-garde and the unexplained, Holden will be well worth your time. The actors and creative team have put their heart, soul, and blood into a powerful imaginative portrait of the psyche of one of literature’s most fascinating characters. It runs at the New Ohio Theatre in NYC until January 14. Tickets are available at the box office or at 866-811-4111.