Aberbombie & Bitch:
A Review of Edmund White's Terre Haute
by Tony Phillips
Author Edmund White has contributed many great works to the arts canon – A Boy’s Own Story, Genet: A Biography, even The Joy of Gay Sex – unfortunately his new-ish play, Terre Haute, isn’t one of them. It’s not a bad play, either, just, like its two central characters, deeply flawed. The 80 minute two-hander imagines what would have happened if the correspondence between author Gore Vidal and Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh went beyond pen pals and blossomed into an actual two face to face meeting. The results play something like Silence of the Lambs crossed with Sleepless in Seattle.
Things open with the by now de rigueur, post-Guantanamo naked bulb hung above a translucent pen stacked onto grates handy for up-lighting, which lighting designer Matthew Eagland under-uses in this production. Nick Westrate paces his cell in comely two-piece prison duds while Peter Eyre languishes about on the sidelines as if he’s back at the villa. In the rich tradition of the Truman Capote/Perry Smith jailhouse rom/com, Westrate plays straight while Eyre cops to “bisexual.” And while Eyre confesses a lecherous attraction, he never gets within 10 feet of Westrate, even, most implausibly, when he’s trying to pick up with a handheld tape recorder.
Westrate’s good-looks and hulking posture, not to mention his militaristic barking, go along way to selling his character while Eyre’s mincing does as well, but this talky play is hung on one slim idea, that “all we have, each one of us, is our story. The story of our life. It’s the novel we’re writing just by existing.” And the terrorist? Eyre likens him to a book burner. The scattered pages, stained and burned, littering the perimeter of Westrate’s cage swim into focus. It’s a nice image, but not enough on which to hang an entire evening.
The actors do their best: Westrate trembling, forearms on knees as he sits on the ground recalling a relatively more innocent childhood. Director George Perrin does as much as he can with blocking such enclosed areas, placing Westrate on the floor next to a tall chair designer Hannah Clark makes look suspiciously like the ones populating the memorial on the grounds of what was once the Murrah Federal Building. But in the end, White’s play boils down to the question of whether the two main characters would fuck or not? It seems like a lot to chew on just because one may have had a schoolgirl’s crush on handsome killer Timmy McVeigh.