Meriwether Lewis was not a guy of too many enviable qualities. He had a narrow face and a pointy nose, an alcohol problem and a frantic case of hypochondria.
He left on his famous expedition across the western portion of the United States in 1804 in part to escape an army of furious debtors, paving the way for the genocide of countless indigenous people, only to die from self-inflicted gun wounds alone in a lodging house at the age of 35.
But one thing Lewis had, besides probably syphilis, was an eye for detail. In the journals that he and his partner, William Clark, kept over the period of their two-year-four month-and-ten-day voyage, Lewis took stock of their surroundings with meticulous, almost encyclopedic accuracy.
He wrote about every detail he saw, from fluctuations in climate, to celestial movements, to the way a young woman picked corn in the late weeks of harvest. He wrote tenderly and diligently. He wrote like Emerson took on the Dewey Decimal system.
Clark was almost the opposite. Clark cut a soft, doughy figure and chronicled their trip in broad strokes. His journal entries rarely pushed past three or four bad sentences, many of which involved whether or not he had the runs.
Clark’s main contribution was cartography—he produced several sketches of the territory he explored, including three large composite maps of the entire West. But unlike Lewis’ description, these maps were wildly imprecise. They were groundbreaking documents for explorers of the time, but by most standards these were primitive models, vague approximations of what the country looked like.
The two were a cartoonish pair—one an obsessive particularist, the other a crude generalist—and in that sense, the Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre’s premiere of Lewiston/Clarkston, a production of two hilarious one-acts, written with an exacting eye for detail, but stretched into a clumsy, heavy-handed allegory of America, captures their dynamic slightly too well.
The full event of Lewiston/Clarkston, written by Samuel D. Hunter and directed by Davis McCallum, includes two plays: Lewiston and Clarkston, with a barbecue dinner in between.
The plays are set in Lewiston, Idaho and Clarkston, Washington respectively: two towns situated across the state border from one another, with a river in between.
Both stories are set on the 4th of July, both focus on modern-day descendants of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, and both are set up as allegories as soon as you open the program: Lewiston, the summary tells you, is “fundamentally about the past.” Clarkston, by contrast, is “fundamentally about the future.”
The signposting is unnecessary, because Lewiston is an expert exploration of history and the unpleasant baggage of family drama that requires little explanation.
The play opens in pitch dark—the only action an audio recording of an unidentified young woman talking to herself as she starts a six-week hike west. The lights come up on a cranky septuagenarian named Alice (played perfectly and dryly by Kristin Griffith), bickering with her roommate, Connor (Arnie Burton), a goofy ex-butcher grappling with being gay in rural Idaho.
The two live in Alice’s house, hawk low-grade fireworks at a roadside stand, and occasionally sell off chunks of their land, which has been in Alice’s family since her great-something-grandfather, Meriwether Lewis, first stole it. The pair seem to have settled into a comfortable, if financially tight, rhythm. But their life gets disrupted when Alice’s estranged and deeply annoying granddaughter shows up, determined to start a new life on her ancestral plot.
Over the course of several tense days, the odd trio work through their complicated family legacy, slowly revealing what drove them apart and the story behind the mysterious opening audio. What emerges is an entertaining narrative with wry dialogue, but the fluency of the writing gets overshadowed by the sense that one is watching a political allegory, and a tired, overwrought one at that.
In one scene, for example, Marnie, whose smug, liberal-arts vibe borders on parody (she’s a self-righteous vegetarian, who dropped out of school to start an urban farm in Seattle with her mom’s money), snaps at Connor over his job at Walgreens. “I’m sure your job at ‘the Walgreens’ brings in plenty of cash,” she says, “I’m very impressed.”
The line lands like a slap in the face, and Connor reacts with much-deserved anger, schooling Marnie about the scourge of local layoffs, and the long hours he worked to pay for Alice’s healthcare.
On its own, the interaction might have read as a vivid, if on-the-nose, portrait of a sheltered girl confronting her own elitism. But the play, which describes itself in the program as an “achingly human exploration of the end of the American experiment,” constantly holds up exchanges like this one as a hamfisted comment on America as a whole.
By framing the story as a microcosm of the nation, Lewiston stretches a simple, real portrait of one American dynamic into a parable for the American dynamic, inadvertently erasing anyone the play doesn’t mention (like, say, the non-white working class), and thereby distorting the country it’s trying to represent.
On the plus side, the food is good (if also unsubtle on the symbolism: barbecue chicken and potato salad, with tofu for the Marnies), and it warms you up for Clarkston, which has all the observational strengths of Lewiston, with less of the unearned symbolism.
Clarkston, as the program spelled out, is a play about the future. More specifically, it’s about the paralyzing ambiguity of trying to figure it out.
The story starts in the back room of a Costco, as two boys lug bulk items from one shelf to another. When one of them, an impossibly skinny kid named Jake (Noah Robbins), drops a canister of popcorn kernels, he admits that he has Huntington’s Chorea, a degenerative neurological disorder that gives him occasional muscle spasms. His future is truncated: he will die before he’s 30.
By contrast, his co-worker, Chris (Edmund Donovan), has years ahead of him—years he doesn’t quite know what to do with, except a pipe dream to go to Iowa Writers' Workshop.
Jake, a neurotic rich kid from New England, tells Chris he came to Washington to retrace the steps of his ancestor, William Lewis. In that sense, and in many others, Jake is a character much like Marnie, a sheltered Bennington grad with a degree in postcolonial gender studies, no actual work experience, and a romantic notion of manual labor.
In this same opening scene, Jake mentions an ex-boyfriend, sending Chris—who is also gay, but not out—into a stunned silence. In the weeks leading up to July 4th, the two embark on a tentative romance, one fraught by Noah’s degenerative disease and Chris’ mother, Trisha, a meth addict struggling to get clean.
Like Lewiston, Clarkston concerns some coastal-elite-type confronting the limits of their understanding, but by either subtler symbolism or the sheer force of its acting manages to sidestep some of Lewiston’s more cringe-worthy moments.
Both Lewiston and Clarkston are tight, observant vignettes that realize swatches of modern-day life with devastating, but often hilarious, accuracy. The production only loses ground when it tries to parlay those portraits into something larger than they are. Even a perfectly precise sketch, when spread too thin, makes a crude map.
Lewiston/Clarkston is at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, New York City, through Dec. 2.