EYE ON THEATRE
By JOHN SIMON
The two women playwrights I write about are both established veterans, but couldn’t be more different. They are Theresa Rebeck, who is likable, and Naomi Wallace, who is intolerable.
Rebeck’s current play, “Poor Behavior,”not one of her very best, is at any rate her most ambitious, and as such deserves respect. It concerns, like many of hers, man-woman relations, but it also extends to metaphysics and politics. Ms. Rebeck knows how to write pungent dialogue, which is her first strength, and also how to make it often witty, which is her second.
We have here two high bourgeois New York couples, Peter and Ella in their upstate weekend retreat, and this weekend’s guests, their friends Ian and Maureen. The latter are not exactly a happy pair, Ian being Irish and sardonic about both the U.S. and Irish Catholicism, and Maureen being kind of crazy and suicidal. He may have married her for her money or a green card, though back then even out of love.
Interest is cannily generated from comestibles: pretentiously flavored muffins (“Tomato muffins? People have too much time on their hands”), shellfish possibly left unrefrigerated, and a vandalized, home-grown basil plant. But there is also an earlier, fifteen-minute incident of mildly adulterous clandestine kissing, recalled by Ian as several kisses in a coat closet, by Ella as merely one kiss in a less compromising walk-in closet.
So it’s out of trivial matters such as those muffins, previously vomited up but naively bitten into by another’s mouth, that Rebeck concocts her comedy-drama, and for the most part it works. There are, however, also improbabilities and needless reiteration that neither Evan Cabnet’s solid direction nor all-round good acting can quite redeem.
Brian Avers is a suitably sarcastic and contentious Ian, and Heidi Armbruster a convincingly troubled and teary Maureen. Jeff Biehl’s Peter is staid-verging-on-dull enough until jealousy at Ella and Ian’s carryings-on embitter him, and Katie Kreisler manages to be both sexy and metaphysical in her speculations about goodness, contested by Ian. Lauren Helpern’s weekend-cottage set is sheer excellence down to some skis incongruously displayed in summer, and Jessica Pabst’s costumes are a perfect fit.
A problem, though, is that we don’t learn what anyone does for a living, which gives the proceedings a bit too much abstractness. Equally questionable is an emphatically ambiguous ending, making for a certain shaggy-dogginesss. But how can one not respond to lines like Ian’s, “Why do Americans persist in thinking that it is ‘moral’ and ‘good’ to remain addicted to an institution [marriage] which has driven them mad? You all think the most insane and dangerous leaders imaginable are decent as long as they’re in a supposedly sound marriage.” And again: “Why are you trying so hard to be good, if goodness is death? Or not even death. What if it’s only an anaesthetic? If goodness is only an anaesthetic, is it still goodness? Especially if anaesthesia isn’t finally just an excuse . . . Our own little excuse for poor behavior?” At the very least, Theresa Rebeck’s poor behavior makes you think.
Venue: Primary Stages at The Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street, New York, NY 10036. Telephone: 646-223-3010. Performances through September 7, 2014.
Primary Stages Photo by Erin Resnick, courtesy of Primary Stages.
I doubt whether a more untalented, undeserving individual than Naomi Wallace has ever received the MacArthur (so-called Genius) Award. Further, her ghastly plays have been produced not only in the U.S., but also in the U.K., Europe and the Middle East, and she has also garnered the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, Joseph Kesselring Prize, and Horton Foote Prize for best American play. Also a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and Southern Writers’ and Obie Awards. And her abominable “One Flea More” has been incorporated in the Comédie-Française’s permanent repertoire.
Herewith, from my book John Simon on Theater, the opening paragraph of my “Flea” review. “Naomi Wallace . . . is a very confused young woman. For one thing, she is still a Marxist after the collapse of Marxism. For another, she has taken the title from a wonderful poem by John Donne, “The Flea,” specifically from the line, “Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,” meaning spare a flea that sucked your blood and mine, and thus united us. But by itself, “One Flea Spare” can mean at most one extra flea, which has no demonstrable bearing on the play. Finally, she has written a piece that is not only pretentious and boring, but also empty, pointless, and totally preposterous.”
This applies perfectly to “And I and Silence” (2011), now at the Pershing Square Signature Center. Once again Wallace has ineptly plundered for a prestigious epigraph a poem this time by Emily Dickinson, but whereas ”And I, and Silence” makes very good sense in context, nonsensically excerpted without the commas, it is, to rephrase Dickinson’s title, “A Funeral in [Naomi’s] Brain.”
Consider the plot. Young Jamie, 17 and black, and Young Dee, 16 and white, meet in a women’s prison where both are doing nine years. One of them as accessory in a robbery (hardly a nine-year offense), and the other for an unspecified reason. They form a highly emotional relationship, sort of closet lesbian, and, upon release, share a modest city apartment, both pursuing—sometimes successfully, sometimes not— careers as maids in separate households.
The relationship is of an S&M variety, each woman taking turns caning the other. In a crucial scene, in pretense of re-enacting oral sex forced upon her by an elderly male employer, adult Dee gives head for adult Jamie. In the end, after much dreary altercation and passionate reconciliation, the pair (exploited by capitalism) commit double suicide under the gaze of their younger selves, all four intoning chorically, “Hush”-- the very word that should have been directed at Wallace when she accosted her pen or laptop.
And as if this weren’t bad enough, the writing, which maddeningly alternates between scenes with the younger and the older women, abounds in near incomprehensibility, what with cryptic utterances, sentence fragments, non sequiturs, aposiopesis, and subliteracy. (Sample: the widespread but illiterate ‘til for the correct till.)
Even the prison is inauthentic, what with unlikely amenities and free socializing between cells, but let’s get to the writing. Thus Jamie, about the view from a cell: “They go together, birds and trees. You can’t have one without the other. And you can’t learn to dust right thinking about rags. You can only dust right thinking about flitter. Flitter lives in the mind. Flitter and dust they go together. You put rags in your mind, you got nothing.”
Or take this sample of Wallace’s beloved stichomythia. “JAMIE: You sick again? DEE: No. Just resting. J: Lately you’re always resting. D: Nah. I just like looking at the ceiling and waiting for you to come home. J: Did you sleep? D: Yeah. I dreamed I f**ked my mother. J: Oh. How many times? D: Just once. J: The dream or—D: Both. Do you find me disgusting?” There are also powerful one-liners, such as Dee’s “Only man worth kissing is a man who’s got teeth like a horse.”
I could quote example after example of Wallace’s wonders, which have earned her critical raves. Thus we read : ”Unmissable . . . devastating, moving”; “Compelling”; “Powerful and touching . . . unforgettable”; and, from Variety: “One of the most subtle and politically engaged . . . playwrights.”
What is the world coming to?
Venue: The Pershing Square Signature Center / Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street, between Dyer and 10th Avenues, New York, NY 10036. Box Office / Tickets: 212-244-7529.
Performances through September 14, 2014.
And I And Silence production images by and courtesy of Matthew Murphy.
John Simon has written for over 50 years on theatre, film, literature, music and fine arts for the Hudson Review, New Leader, New Criterion, National Review, New York Magazine, Opera News, Weekly Standard, Broadway.com and Bloomberg News. He reviews books for the New York Times Book Review and Washington Post. To learn more, visit the www.JohnSimon-Uncensored.com website.