From Jean Genet to Truman Capote to Norman Mailer, the 20th century is riddled with writers who set off to chronicle the evil that men do, and returned smitten—”enthralled,” in Genet’s words. The esteemed novelist (and Genet biographer) Edmund White makes his own contribution to this genre by proxy with the crisply acted and intermittently compelling Terre Haute, which features thinly veiled versions of Gore Vidal and Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh as death-row confidantes/combatants.
Vidal defended McVeigh’s philosophy in a series of magazine articles, and the two corresponded for three years without ever meeting. White has conjured a quartet of jailhouse encounters, in which the Vidal surrogate, James Brevoort (Peter Eyre), alternates between browbeating, flattering, condescending to, and ogling the young prisoner, Harrison (Nick Westrate), over the last four days before Harrison’s execution.
Despite White’s well-crafted symmetries and flashes of insight—particularly regarding the emotionally cloistered James—a whiff of authorial license hangs over Terre Haute. The gap between James’s glinting paragraphs of dialogue and Harrison’s stammering rage has a stage-managed quality to it, and neither Eyre’s baroque melancholy nor Westrate’s caged physicality can ward off the play’s inherent stasis. (This is only accentuated by director George Perrin’s odd decision to have Eyre periodically meander around the stage.) To paraphrase the still-reigning giant of this genre, the blood pulsing through Terre Haute is a bit too cold. ERIC GRODE