When Mark Chapman murdered John Lennon in 1980, he was carrying a copy of The Catcher in the Rye. When John Hinckley shot President Reagan a year later, he had a copy of that book in his hotel room.
Playwright Anisa George has taken this strange confluence and used it as the basis for her play Holden, presented by George & Co. and The New Ohio Theatre. Her play takes place in J.D. Salinger’s writing retreat. Salinger himself is there, of course. We also find Chapman and Hinckley living there, acting as a sort of pair of muses.
Into this secluded haven arrives a fourth, Zev. It isn’t clear if he’s murdered anyone. It isn’t even clear if he’s read Catcher. He himself doesn’t know what he’s doing there. What is clear is that he has a murderous temperament. When Chapman and Hinckley explain the situation to him, he responds with a list of people that he’d like to kill: Bob Dylan; Bill Gates; Arnold Schwarzenegger; Alex Trebek. He’d like to break the record of 69 killed in the 2011 shooting in Norway. Even Chapman and Hinckley are disgusted.
It’s through the two assassins’ explanations to Zev that we learn about the world of the play. “If you’re gonna be a catcher, Zev, there are rules,” Chapman says.
This is a brilliant concept, and it’s a great play and a great production. At its heart is the mysterious stage reality of Chapman, Hinckley and Zev. They don’t exist in Salinger’s mind, exactly. Indeed, he barely pays attention to them. They cajole him to write, but he never addresses them.
Instead, we’re in a unique world of dramatic truth. This is Chapman’s and Hinckley’s fantasy, not Salinger’s. He presumably hasn’t invited them in. Still, Ms. George is exposing the amorality of art. The assassins didn’t inspire Salinger, but they admired him. And Chapman and Hinckley aren’t evil here so much as they are insane. They think of themselves as, as Chapman says, catchers.
The show is directed by the playwright, and she keeps us absorbed without much aid from plot. She does it by keeping the play full of action within the fluid relationship between Chapman, Hinckley and Zev. Even during moments without dialogue we’re engrossed in the fiction. She gives the production a strong, animated rhythm.
The cast, as well, gives us terrific work – Jaime Maseda as Chapman, Scott R. Sheppard as Hinckley, Matteo Scammell as Zev, Bill George as Salinger (who has little to say). Their internal life keeps us involved when we might otherwise be lost due to the lack of a strong through line.
Nick Benacerraf’s set is beautiful – chopped wood on all sides, a clothesline with papers pinned to it, a cot, a stove. Seth Reiser’s lighting and Rebecca Kanach’s costumes work wonderfully. In all, they reflect our common fantasy of the reclusive writer Salinger.
Indeed, the dialogue as well is peppered with recognition of the fabled recluse. “He’s all wrapped up in practicing detachment from public opinion,” Chapman says of him.
The problem with the script is its unsatisfying ending; it calls into question Zev’s stage reality, that idiosyncratic dramatic construction that the playwright has heretofore defined so carefully. It’s particularly odd in light of Zev’s evil nature, and we wonder what sort of point Ms. George might be making.
But Holden is a terrific production, both commanding and subtle, making for a thrilling 90 minutes of theatre.