The only upsetting thing about The Dream Engine was the obvious potential of the work which never congealed into a coherent whole. Everyone tried to say a great deal, but the only real communication was blatantly emotional. After the first two hours, this emotion became exhaustive and redundant.
One wonders if Jim Steinman, who wrote book, music, and lyrics and also more or less starred, was seriously interested in provoking a lasting effect on his audience. His writing was brilliant, his satire biting. The play could have been exceptional, but he seemed more interested in including the required elements for something of this genre rather than unifying the production.
The audience reacted to the emotionalism. Yet if the play had more direction, and by this I don't mean blocking but purpose, it could have simultaneously stimulated the intellect and created a more lasting impression. The audience, at least where I was sitting, left with relief and not with a mission.
Yet there were so many excellent things about this production. The writing, as stated before, when allowed to be heard, was brilliant, especially the satires of Establishment types. Here Mr. Steinman was amply assisted by two members of his cast, who were excellent in their roles: Stephen Collins as Max and Sarah Harris as Emily. Mr. Collins revealed the hypocrisy of establishment types humorously and, well, as a cop who is afraid of discovering his truth, as a patronizing psychiatrist who threatened the youth with: "We danced to Guy Lombardo after the last war and we'll dance to him after the next," and as an unwholesome monk.
Sarah Harris, the only real singer in the cast, was inspiring. She brought to her role a caustic, unseeing attitude which was refreshingly well-defined. Her blindness was untouchable, her hypocrisy complete. Her delivery of the songs held the entire audience as no other did. The finest moments of the show were the scenes and songs with these characters, if for no other reason than because they could be understood and weren't incomprehensibly loud. The mock-out of Establishment values in "Trucking," "Mother River," and especially "Who Needs the Young" ("My eyes aren't what they were. Can anyone see? Blind him!") was perfect; the point was well-taken.
THE REST WAS RATHER MUNDANE. The cast was talented and seemed to know what it was doing. The historian, played by Barry Keating, was excellent, at times the only link between the audience and the action. The Girl, played by Ellen Parks, was well-conceived for the smallness of the part. Baal, played by the multi-versatile Mr. Steinman, was adequate, although the part was undefined. What did he stand for? No one seems to know. But with all this talent, it was too bad that the numbers of the tribe seemed so indeterminable and were so non-understandably loud. Their connections with the play seemed tenuous, rather as though they had been stuck in to fit the formula for a "good" rock musical. Ultimately they assumed a sameness, a redundancy which was wearing.
Despite its irrelevancy, the choreography was interesting. Mr. Keating, as director, made a valiant attempt to hold the amorphous piece together. The music, when it wasn't too loud, was well-written and performed. "So little to do and so much time to do it in," said the Historian and this was the effect of the play. Steinman was trying to say too much and succeeded in saying very little. Heretical though it maybe, I think if he tightened the book and shortened the numbers of the tribe, he'd have an infinitely more meaningful work.
As for the nudity — well, everyone is doing it nowadays. Obviously the cast was caught up and attempting to communicate something by this freedom, if only the idea of freedom itself. For a while I was afraid that poor Baal wouldn't be able to take off his clothes, but luckily he did manage to slip off stage for a few moments and remove them. The effect neither turned me on nor off. It seemed rather pointless, but the actors were so sincere that I hesitate to criticize. This will at any rate, assure a larger success in New York, and since Mr. Steinman seems to be looking for success, it will at least satisfy him.
At the play's end, Baal says. "Our Obscenity is the greatest insult we could give a world which makes us sick." Had it only been purposeful, it could have had such a fantastic effect, perhaps even making an indentation on the Establishment it so overtly hated. But it did no such thing.
With all the censorship on nudity in campuses today, it is unusual that The Dream Engine came through relatively unscathed. (The college itself censored nothing about the play.) Saturday, May 3, the cast played in the nude when appropriate. A South Hadley resident protested to the police and the cast was forced to wear brief cover-ups Sunday night.
Mr. Steinman turned what could have been an articulate and telling mouthpiece into something more hypocritical than the Establishment itself. "It's not how far out you go, it's what you bring back," remarked a character at the end. In The Dream Engine nothing is brought back because even less is given.