The first thing that will strike anyone going to see the play Holden at New York City’s New Ohio Theatre are the logs of wood. They are stacked, intricately, as a boundary for the stage and the walls of the cabin or writing shed in which the novelist J.D. Salinger is attempting to write a new novel.
How long did they take to stack? Who chopped all the wood? An immediate bottle of Champagne, please, for scenic designer Nick Benacerraf.
The writer we see in this George & Co. play—conceived, written, and directed by Anisa George—is a tortured, surly man, and one so utterly folded in on himself as to be almost unreachable.
As played with a self-contained ferocity by Bill George, he also has company of the seen and unseen kind.
The seen presence is his daughter Peggy (the charming George Truman), here seen as a young child, keen just to hang out with her dad, who’s locked himself up in this shack away from the Salingers’ New Hampshire house. She is the only equalizing influence around a man of bizarre extremity.
There is a writing table Salinger paces around, a floor, what looks like an Army-issue bed he lies down on to sleep covered by a meager blanket, a kettle, books, and a laundry line cord—and on the cord hang pages that he orders and reorders of the new work. Pages are added, pages are discarded, pages are rearranged.
However, it is neither Salinger nor Peggy who are the lead characters in this 90-minute, intermission-less play, but three unseen presences. They are inner demons or muses, or just handy ghosts to give this story of writerly frustration and historical reckoning a violent punch.
We don’t know immediately that these young men—one tall and bearded, another stocky and bro’y, and a third lean and boyish—are their own complex monsters.
Here, as he was in real life, Hinckley is obsessed with Travis Bickle, addressing a picture of Iris, Jodie Foster’s Taxi Driver character.
Their link to Salinger is that both Chapman and Hinkley had The Catcher in the Rye in their possession, and so whose brain would be better to take up an extended residency within? Who better to be Salinger super-fans, willing him on to greater creative heights, to keep him in track?
As anyone acquainted with the reclusive Salinger’s output after The Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951 knows, this would likely be no easy cheerleading process.
Then there is Zev (Matteo Scammell), who seems a little hapless, and happy just to hear his peers’ wild tales, and aid them in their attempt to get Salinger not only to write something, but to send that manuscript out of the prison-cabin to his publisher. The worst thing that could happen is for Salinger to lock it in the cabin’s safe, which should have a skull-and-crossbones painted over it. In it are Salinger’s unpublished works: The demons cry in frustration if Salinger even approaches it.
Part of the humor of the play is to watch this spirit-trio try to influence Salinger—who died in 2010—from within. Another is to watch the two assassins compare notes: Well, at least he actually killed someone, mocks Chapman of Hinckley at one point.
It is unclear what of their voices Salinger hears, though at one point he goes outside to chop some wood to escape himself and whatever inhibiting voices he is burdened by. This chopping he does as impressively as the neat stacks of logs attest. There are no rogue logs that fly into the audience, no airborne splinters.
The choice of the two assassins is intriguing: They talk about guns, and they also double as soldiers fighting in the Second World War, alongside Salinger, whose memories of that period of his life are deeply traumatizing.
The play has mashed-up time. Hinckley, Chapman, and Peggy Salinger were all born in 1955, and yet here Peggy is a little girl and the assassins are in their 20s, and Salinger seems more the older novelist than the comparatively young buck he was in 1955, four years after The Catcher in the Rye was published.
The characters, then, are presences or conduits for George to examine fame, notoriety, and creativity; trauma, gun violence, and an attempt—in the innocence of Peggy, who just wants her dad to be her dad—to find a place for some peace and contentment.
In this telling, Salinger is not just his own tortured recluse, but with these other notorious presences—and the calming reality of a child—becomes a kind of caged embodiment of a fractured America.
The surprise is Zev. He is, as is eventually noted, the only figure on stage who is unknown, and not notorious. But Zev makes clear how he wants to become known, and the scale of the horror he wishes to inflict—familiar to all those watching newscasts today—outrages Chapman and Hinckley, leading to a curious act of brutality.
Violence and the trauma of violence—of war, of individuals, of the creative process and mind—is the thrumming through-line of Holden. If the book that made the title character famous has a golden sheen of youth and wizened romance about it, this strange, stunning play has anything but.
Holden is at the New Ohio Theatre, in New York City, until Jan. 14. Book tickets here.