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    David Mazzeo and Lynne McCollough in Promised Land. in Promised Land
    David Mazzeo and Lynne McCollough in "Promised Land."

    Peak condition

    The lives, dreams and failings of a glib Ozark Mountain man and the people around him make up a profoundly human story in the subtly written and superbly acted "Promised Land."


    At the center of "Promised Land" — an outstanding, complex new play about strong and wounded personalities by Harvey Huddleston — is E.L. Sullins, a sort of Lou-Reed-looking, James-Carville-talking character who fights his own intimations of weakness by taking command of everyone around him. Struck blind in an accident, he leans on the people around him while trying to reassure himself that he doesn't need anybody else's help.

    Written by: Harvey Huddleston.
    Directed by: Tom Dybeck.
    Cast: David Mazzeo, Lynne McCollough, Matthew Faber, Bruce McKinnon, Emily Sproch, Danny Rose, Jasmine Goldman.
    American Theatre of Actors
    314 West 54th Street
    Previews start: Jan. 29, 2004
    Jan. 30 - Feb. 14, 2004

    When his wife, Robbie, drops the slightest hint that she deserves a little credit for her role in this marriage of inconvenience, he characteristically lashes out. "Eight years I have lived a white pain, and never once have I asked you to stay," he snaps.

    In this line alone, we can read a lot of what's subtly extraordinary about this character-driven play. In fact, we've already seen that E.L. depends on Robbie for most everything; yet, he insists that he doesn't need her or anybody. He wants people's pity for a searing pain he suppresses inside, but doesn't want to ask for it or acknowledge it. The words "white pain" will return when we find out more about his inner blackness.

    E.L. — played to perfection by David Mazzeo — has a way of making every sentence shimmer with the folksy twang of Ozark Mountain conversation. In fact, several times he seems to suggest that talking well is living well in this neck of the woods. "We talked about things other people don't even know exist," he says, recalling the day he met his friend Charley. Later he adds, "With friends like you and Elmer, there's no limit to what we can tell each other." Strange, surprising turns of phrase these are, but they jibe with his character's limited powers. As he sits in an office with a reel-to-reel tape recorder and a rotary phone, talking is the thing he can really do well.

    The backbone of the story is that E.L. now runs a small, fledgling real-estate business, raising money from his friends for his ultimate project — the "Promised Land" retreat where blind people can come to live in the outdoors — but alienating others by buying up land all over the region when the owners fall on hard times. His assistant Charley (played by Mathew Faber, formerly the annoying brother in "Welcome to the Dollhouse") suddenly needs back the $2,000 he invested in the possible boondoggle, giving rise to suspicions that E.L. has been doing something else with the money. With the slow economy and E.L.'s personal failings, the Promised Land is looking like an idle pipe dream, something for a broken man to cling to as a reason to live. And yet, around his dream is collected a group of believers who are waiting for him to lead them. (Or are they merely tiptoeing around him in condescending indulgence?)

    Almost every line of "Promised Land" is an exciting surprise. Huddleston never seems to be trying too hard — the lines he gives E.L. feel just right for a country dreamer with a colorful vocabulary and a strong personality. Mazzeo outtalks everyone around him, and has a solo scene near the end that is crushingly genuine. The supporting performances are also excellent, particularly from Lynne McCollough as Robbie and Bruce McKinnon as Elmer. (Danny Rose has only one brief appearance but makes the most of it as well.) It's a subtle, character-driven play that trades in big themes, like ambition, loss, alcoholism and mistrust, that could easily become maudlin but don't. The play doesn't go for a quick emotional knockout — it slowly reaches for something essentially human in its characters, and in us.

    FEBRUARY 3, 2004

    Reader comments on Promised Land:

  • Reconnection of my name and personal problems!   from Tom Dybeck, Nov 25, 2004
  • Shock and awe at "my" success!   from Harvey T. Huddleston, M.D., FA, Sep 1, 2009

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