It turns out that Petit, or a dreamy incarnation of him, walking above the action on stage, plays a big role in Up:
part muse, part Greek chorus. Petit was the inspiration for Walter
Griffin, the fictionalized incarnation of Larry Walters, the California
truck driver who soared 16,500 feet into the air by tying balloons to a
Sears lawn chair. In a play with so much windy discourse about destiny
and fate, simple luck cannot explain it, however. Perhaps it should be
In promoting Up, Syracuse Stage
has said rather too much about the historical Larry Walters, who
ascended to the clouds in 1982. His story has already been turned into
a fantasy comedy, albeit transported to Australia, in Danny Deckchair (2003). Playwright Carpenter is hunting bigger game here. Consider that her Up was written in tandem with Down, about three years earlier but treading on many of the same themes: celebrity and fate.
Plays that premiere in one small theater and then are revised for a larger one are hard to date. Down opened in Los Angeles in 2000, and Up first
appeared in Juneau, Alaska, in 2004. Tim Bond saw it at the Oregon
Shakespeare Festival in 2006, under a different director from Penny
Metropulos, who helms it here. National response to Up has been
limited, which is why it’s making an East Coast premiere now. But
Chicago’s trend-enhancing Steppenwolf Theatre will produce it later
Air apparent: Todd Jefferson Moore (center) takes flight, with Suzanna Hay (left) and Mhari Sandoval (right) looking aghast, in Syracuse Stage’s Up. MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTO
In performances Up is a queasy
mix of whimsical eccentricity out of William Saroyan and portentous
Stoppardian metaphysics. Often the forces merge in a single line of
dialogue or scene, as when Petit aloft counsels chair-bound Griffin
that “Birds don’t have wallets.” At the same time, Up is part domestic comedy, part meditation on kismet. The two motives are intertwined until the end.
As the action begins, it is 15 years
since Walter Griffin went aloft in his lawn chair, earning fleeting
moments of fame, such as an interview with David Letterman. As he
lacked witnesses, he did not achieve the paper immortality of the Guinness Book of Records. High-spirited
and feckless, Walter lives off the earnings of his hard-working but
earthbound wife Helen, a postal worker who complains about having to
deliver heavy catalogs.
Long-suffering and grousing Helen
compares her actual husband with her imagined “real husband,” who is as
responsible and practical as she. Walter’s airy dismissal of Helen’s
concerns will remind experienced playgoers of free-spirited Murray’s
treatment of his hardworking brother Arnold in A Thousand Clowns, by Saroyan’s principal heir in the last generation, Herb Gardner.
Also in the Walters household is son
Mikey, their non-studious (“school sucks”) and nerdy son. Mikey, a
sophomore in high school, is 15 (nudge-nudge), meaning he was born
about the time of his father’s ascent. Mikey and the action take an
exhilarating new turn when he meets an unapologetically pregnant and
unmarried new student, Maria, who wrangles an invitation to dinner at
the Walters household. Mother Helen frets that her son might be having
sex with Maria, whose rapid-fire dialogue is richly spiced with the
f-word. We see, as Helen does not, that Maria is more interested in
playing with Mikey’s (now Michael’s) mind than his genitalia.
As Maria’s mother is a boozer who left
town, the teenager lives with her sweet-talking, Southern-accented,
line dancing Aunt Chris, who suggests ways Michael might grow up fast.
No need for education. She has the route for the boy to make plenty of
money. It’s to support her office supply firm, something everybody
needs, and Michael can do this through telephone solicitation,
nationwide. Within minutes Michael has matured before our eyes as a
smooth-talking salesman with a headset, milking riches from the entire
state of Delaware. Chris hands over a paycheck for $59,000. But we have
seen (or smelled) a rat before this. Chris smokes real cigarettes,
watering the eyes of people in the first five rows. And these days
there’s no surer signal of Mephistophelean intent than the whiff of
Along this route we and Michael are
introduced to tarot cards, signaling what Michael’s fate will be. As
Chekhov reminded us about the pistol introduced in the first act that must be
fired, a playwright cannot introduce tarot cards if they turn out to be
as useless as they are in life. Quick: How did tarot do in predicting
the fall of Lehman Brothers and its effect on you and me? Carpenter
underscores her reliance on this sophomore playwright’s device by
giving Michael an elementary lesson in what the cards mean.
All the players deliver admirable
performances, especially those in unrewarding roles, such as Mhari
Sandoval’s pedestrian but humorous Helen, who makes us forget the
prosthetic boot she’s wearing because of an injury during rehearsals.
Kudos for Todd Jefferson Moore’s über-doofus Walter, Graham
Powell’s earnest but educatable Mikey, Christopher Duval’s airborne
Philippe and several other roles, and Suzanna Hay in the dual roles of
Helen’s disapproving mother and the shifty scam artist Aunt Chris.
Running on a different trajectory from
the rest of the cast is Susannah Flood as Maria; a brilliant monologist
of the caliber of a young Lily Tomlin, working often trifling lines
into giant guffaws, Flood not only steals scenes but runs away with her
portion of the play. It’s disappointing, then, to learn at the end that
she’s really a supporting character.
In Joseph Whelan’s useful program notes
about the historical Larry Walters, we learn that playwright Carpenter
has closely followed what happened in the ascent, the unexpected cold
at high altitudes and Walters’ dropping of the BB pistol intended to
allow him to pop balloons and allow a slow descent to earth. Many of
these details appear in George Plimpton’s New Yorker profile, written five years after Walters’ suicide in 1993.
When we consider that Carpenter knew
that Walters lived only 11 years after his stunt, we view the final
scene quite differently. On stage we see a flashback to the moment the
dramatic Walter Griffin soared into the heavens, with his loving and
pregnant wife at his side, and achieved what he wanted to be remembered
for. The opening night’s audience applauded this ironic “happy ending.”
They did not heed the callous advice of the dramatic Philippe Petit who
scoffs at having a net beneath him: “If you fall, you deserve what you
This production runs through March 15. See Times Table for information.