Theater Review: Clapp, Frost Are a Natural Pair

Valley News Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Up in this neck of the woods, Robert Frost needs little, if any, introduction. Still, in his countless public appearances, he tended to introduce himself anyway — with the kinds of meandering, dryly humorous musings that A.M. Dolan incorporated into the play Robert Frost: This Verse Business, a one-act portrait of the celebrated New England poet that draws directly from his lectures, poems and letters.

This primary source material dovetails seamlessly with the down-to-earth delivery of the play’s only actor, the Emmy-winning, Tony-nominated Gordon Clapp, best known for his 12 seasons on NYPD Blue, in Northern Stage’s production of This Verse Business, cleverly directed by Gus Kaikkonen.

Because the play is in part a nod to the decades Frost spent “barding” himself into the hearts and minds of the American public, it begins by portraying Frost as a public persona: standing behind a dais, sipping a glass of water, giving what seems to be one of his famously winding preambles to his readings. In this one, he extols the intrinsic value of poetry and the arts, while also breaking down this value into its constituent parts. Mostly, in his case, couplets — or at the very least, iambic meter.

“What is poetry?” he muses. “It is a use of metaphors, much like Einstein used science, to explain our humanity.” Later on, he answers his own question another way, arguing that a good poem is simply “a lot of lines that you can’t get out of your head after you hear them.”

As a native New Englander himself, and long-time admirer of Frost’s work, Clapp slips comfortably into Frost’s shoes. He wears the poet’s folksy-meets-philosophical mannerisms like a second skin, and captures, as did Frost’s life and letters, part of what it means to be a New Englander: a tendency to self-deprecate, and to dress in layers, and to wander the woods deep in thought.

Above all, Clapp brings Frost’s meditations to life with a healthy dose of mischief, capturing Frost as a man who delighted in the ambiguity of poems and how to interpret them. He admits to being nonplussed at times by the fusty conventions of academia, and points to how over-analyzing poetry takes all the fun out of it. One of the most common questions he’s gotten in response to his poems is: “Is this metaphysical?”

“And I say, ‘ye-e-es!’ ” Clapp mimics himself drawing out his answer in a near-falsetto, affecting a hint of a Boston Brahmin accent — a very fancy “yes” indeed. But then, in the next breath, he flashes a sly grin and admits he only gives this answer about “50 percent of the time.”

Norwich native Alexander Woodward nails the set design, which is much like Frost’s poetry in that it lacks frills but evokes all that it needs to. This sensibility is most striking in the second portion of the show, which seamlessly shifts gears from Frost-the-persona to Frost-the-person. Instead of a dais, a rocking chair sits in front of a row of (what else?) bowed birches, their peeling bark all silvery under the stage lights, a subtle touch by lighting director Tyler M. Perry. The backdrop is a broad mountain view that reddens, then purples with twilight, fading closer and closer to black as the play, and Frost, winds down for the night. A few miniature houses dot the very edges of the stage, windows twinkling with the suggestion of distant neighbors going about their own bucolic lives.

The absence of walls makes Frost’s interior life seem continuous with those elements of nature that he spun into poems again and again: trees, snow, what sundown does to the world. Here, he changes from loafers to sneakers, shows us how he writes without a desk and dispenses more personal details of his family life, such as a globe-trotting daughter and a son lost to suicide, as well as his wry observations about those he calls “radicals” and “conservatives.”

The only aspect of Dolan’s script that disappoints is the final line. There’s no need to spoil it by stating it, but suffice it to say, it might be the most predictable possible line with which to end a play about Frost. It’s not inappropriate, given how powerfully that line has seeped into Frost’s legacy, but on the other hand, it’s a rather unsurprising way to polish off a portrait of a man who, we have spent the last 85 minutes learning, enjoyed being full of surprises.

Clapp’s warm, witty performance will endear the play to New Englanders, especially in Vermont and New Hampshire, who regard Frost as an inalienable part of the region’s identity; on opening night, frequent ahhhs of recognition rose up from the audience whenever Clapp recited or alluded to one of Frost’s works.

But it may be even better suited to audiences who haven’t been indoctrinated into the Frost fan club. Most of the poems in This Verse Business are among Frost’s best known — The Road Less Taken, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, Mending Wall and the like; Clapp’s reading of The Death of the Hired Man is especially moving. Because Dolan so nicely contextualizes Frost’s quintessential work with his persona as a rascal who happens to be an intellectual, This Verse Business would be an excellent way to introduce someone to New England’s most beloved poet, and they would be lucky for such an entertaining introduction.

For some, Clapp’s performance could make all the difference.

Northern Stage’s production of Robert Frost: This Verse Business runs through Oct. 28 as part of a rotating repertory with Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. For tickets ($15-60) or for more information contact the box office at 802-296-7000 or boxoffice@northernstage.org.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at ejholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.