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Paulanne Simmons

Sometimes Wise Words and Warm Feelings Aren’t Enough

''The Cave Dwellers''
Directed by Shepard Sobel
The Pearl Theatre Company
80 St. Marks Plat at 1st Ave.
Opened March 4, 2007
Tues. 7 p.m., Wed. 2 p.m., Thurs. 8 p.m., Fri. 8 p.m. Sat. 2 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m.
$40-$50 (212) 598-9802 or www.pearltheatre.org
Closes April 8, 2007
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons March 5, 2007

William Saroyan's reputation as a playwright rests mostly on two 1939 plays, ''My Heart's in the Highlands'' and ''The Time of Your Life.'' It does not rest on ''The Cave Dwellers,'' which he wrote in 1957 after a self-imposed 16-year exile from the Broadway stage. There is good reason for this.

Carol Schultz as The Queen and Mahira Kakkar as The Girl in ''The Cave Dwellers''. Photo by Gregory Costanzo.

Saroyan's fable about a group of has-beens and never-weres who take refuge in an abandoned theater during a cold New York City winter is filled with wise words and warm feelings, but it lacks the cohesion, plot development and thematic clarity that make a drama compelling. And it's far too realistic for an experimental play. Even The Pearl Theatre Company's skilled revival and Shepard Sobel's sensitive direction cannot make up for the defects in the script.

''The Cave Dwellers'' features Carol Schultz as ''The Queen,'' a washed-up actress who sleeps away what's left of her life; Robert Hock as ''The King,'' a former clown in a sad state; and Marcus Naylor as ''The Duke,'' a prizefighter who was defeated in the ring because he was afraid of hurting his opponent. The dilapidated theater they live in (set design is by Harry Feiner) evokes the worn-out, hopeless state of the people who have made it their home.

These core characters are soon joined by ''The Girl'' (Mahira Kakkar, whose whining occasionally gets on the nerves), a jobless, loveless and homeless waif who is admitted into the circle thanks to the reluctant intersession of The Duke. Later, various other individuals join the cave dwellers, including a trained bear. If Saroyan intended to suggest a circus, he certainly was successful. But what was he trying to say: life is a circus, we're all clowns?

Each of these forlorn exiles makes profound comments about life, love and loss with lines like ''We know enough to know that we know nothing'' or ''The secret of the theater is love.'' Hock is especially moving as the clown, who even in his wrecked state, gives his audience (both onstage and off) a glimpse of what he must have been like in his prime.

There is a point in act one, when The King, The Queen, The Duke and The Girl each dream about what is essential to their lives: loss of status, aging, defeat, love. But when these characters wake up, Saroyan abandons their dreams like a lifeboat turning away from shipwrecked sailors on a desert island.

''The Cave Dwellers'' has a cast of 14 people. By the end of the play new characters, a Woman with a Dog, a Wrecking Crew Boss, a Silent Boy, keep appearing like ants at a picnic. One gets the feeling that whenever Saroyan didn't know what to do with the characters he had he brought in a new one. This increases the confusion, not the clarity.

The Pearl Theatre Company is committed to staging classics in partnership with the great playwrights of all periods. Fifty years may make certain items antiques, but it doesn't make a play a classic.

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