Kathleen Tolan’s The Wax Looks at Sensitive Fortysomethings

Written by Jonathan Kalb on . Posted in Posts, Theater.



Kathleen Tolan’s
The Wax is a queer bird of a play. It starts out as a sex farce with
an intellectual edge, then seems to lose interest in the whole subject of sex,
preferring chatty talk about art, then presses on with its sexual antics anyway,
perhaps out of nostalgia, or maybe dramaturgical courtesy. It’s written
very much in, about and for the mood of reflective people in their 40s, which
is to say, smart professionals taking their first deep looks back at their big
life choices, feeling the first truly painful pinch of time, and feeling the
first hints of waning libido between pangs of unfulfilled waxing.


The piece exudes
a merry indifference to the expectations raised by its familiar comic forms.
Tolan’s ruminative rompers seem to be saying that they already judge themselves
more harshly than anyone else ever could, so we should either appreciate the
implicit honesty of their clumsy probings and ambivalent gropings or go away.


The action
is set in a grimly cheery, pink-trimmed hotel room in a seaside New England
town, designed with dead-on, pseudo-B&B quaintness by Walt Spangler. Eight
of the nine characters are guests at a wedding there, though how they all know
each other and who has gotten married are treated as unimportant and never explained.
The characters pair off, start to get steamy, dive predictably under beds or
into closets when the inevitable interruptions come, and talk about their problems,
mostly unpredictably, with a digressively erudite vagueness. No one is ever
remotely disturbed by the fact that every farcical ruse is utterly obvious,
or that the promise of privacy in the room is nil at all times. There’s
a certain imperturbable core under the shenanigans that gives the comedy a peculiar
nonchalance.


Infidelity
hangs in the air like a general drizzle of restlessness that the wedding has
quickened, and everyone in the group is hyperconscious of it. The main problem,
it seems, is that they all wish they could muster more enthusiasm for it than
they have, which is why the farce keeps getting stalled and sidetracked. This
is a world of people too smart and seasoned to abandon themselves to transient
pleasures of any sort, so with them farce becomes a trope for a young people’s
game they’re sure they could still enjoy if only they didn’t see through
it so quickly. The territory is essentially the same as that in Donald Margulies’
Dinner with Friends, filtered through a funhouse mirror that blurs and
blunts the emotions. At one point, a couple’s peeling off of each other’s
clothes comes to a screeching halt because one of them has the simpleminded
gall to say, "I could love you."


The play is
too diffuse to gel around a central character, but the best candidate for protagonist
is Kate, a lovely poet, unhappy in her marriage, whose random swings between
voracious sensuality and remote abstraction are played superbly by Karen Young.
In the opening scene, Kate’s small talk with her friend Angie, a brash
bull-dyke who happens to have long, curly hair, a husband and kids, takes an
abrupt literary turn when Kate starts comparing herself to Woyzeck ("I’m
just limping in my heavy army boots, resentful, insane. I’m a tragic figure…")–whereupon
Angie pulls her into a hot kiss that she doesn’t immediately resist. Apart
from that kiss, unfortunately, Mary Testa, who plays Angie, displays no sympathetic
chemistry either with Young or anyone else in the cast.


The show soon
finds a steady tone, though (and picks up on its motif of anomalous erudition),
with the entrance of Hal (Robert Dorfman), a composer who left his wife three
years ago and has since become a novelist and taken up with a male music and
drama critic named Ben (David Greenspan). Hal had risen to modest respectability
with his music before he lost faith in his talent, partly due to hearing Alban
Berg’s opera Wozzeck, as he explains while using the bathroom to
wash off the drinks that his ex-wife Maureen keeps spilling on him. With his
avuncular, bushy-eyebrowed mien, Dorfman’s Hal seems briefly like the play’s
voice of sanity and objectivity–until the arrival of Ben and Maureen, that
is.


His two partners
both turn out to be amusing cartoons. Maureen (Laura Esterman) lurches in brandishing
her narcotics: a bright red drink to match her vampy red dress and a boombox
from which she greedily inhales snatches of Caruso. And Ben sashays in wearing
a puke-green suit–a Nixon-shouldered clown who constantly spouts pretentious
aperçus at no one in particular. Esterman and Greenspan deserve credit
for squeezing considerable sparkle and detail into these figures–she with
her odd mixture of hangdog poutiness and pitbull aggression, he with his slackjawed
deadpan and earnest, bony-handed gestures.


In the end,
though, Ben is too preposterous to be taken seriously as anyone’s partner,
which is why there’s no dramatic tension in Maureen’s mission to get
Hal into bed again. It’s also why Ben’s climactic speech explaining
his lifelong frustration that a critic is never "seen as a person,
a fellow person" ("I may as well go sell shoes") is a
dud despite Greenspan’s sizzling delivery.


The one wholly
convincing relationship is that between Kate and her mathematician husband Christopher
(Frank Wood), in whose room the action takes place and against whose damaged
"normalcy" all the extracurricular sexual activity is more or less
measured. Because of the constant interruptions, these two spend little time
interacting directly with each other, and each seems genuinely torn in different
sexual directions. They’re clearly still drawn to each other, though, and
Wood, with that droopy-eyed, long-suffering patience that’s become his
trademark, is the perfect foil for Young’s equivocal allure.


It’s too
bad Tolan settled for the old chestnut of incompatibility between artist and
nonartist as this couple’s main problem (each fears the other lacks real
respect and enthusiasm for his or her work). It’s also evasive for her
to make so much of the fluidity of sexual attraction and then wrap the plot
up in the neat and venerable bow of heterosexual marriage. (Kate has a brief
assignation with a sweet hunk she meets in the bar–charmingly played by
Gareth Saxe–but it comes to nothing.) At least the bow comes without a
sense of inevitability to it, though.


Interestingly
enough, Tolan delays the ending with a scene in which a gruff Russian lady named
Lily (Lola Pashalinski) comes in to do a bikini wax on Kate, which she’s
been expecting the entire play. At this point, Kate has recovered with absurd
dispatch from a desultory suicide attempt, most of Chris’ clothes have
been given away (don’t ask), and the room has cleared out so the couple
can finally talk. Lily is a cliche, describing herself as unshockable, gushing
with pride at the mention of Chekhov and Pushkin, scoffing at the idea that
anyone but Russians know what pain is while Kate yowls from the waxing process.
What’s touching here, though, is the couple’s accidental return to
the real wisdom of their bodies, as well as their recognition that their feelings
run deeper than farce and can’t be summed up with, say, quick quotes from
Berg or Pushkin (even if that does sometimes turn Kate on).


Crisply directed
by Brian Kulick, The Wax, for all its bumps, is the product of authentic
searching and, at 90 minutes without intermission, is never boring and often
memorably witty. Its biggest problem, I think, is Tolan’s failure to settle
down and focus on the subject of diffuseness, despite the impressive mileage
she gets out of undermining farce. At one point, Kate claims that she has never
"felt complete with anyone, not even myself or especially myself,"
and one has the feeling that Tolan’s bigger game was to explore this as
a general affliction. Hopefully, she’ll have the patience and concentration
to do it in her next play.


Playwrights
Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St. (betw. 9th & 10th Aves.), 279-4200, through Jan.
21.


 



Autoeroticism
in Detroit

By Steven
Somkin



Leaving a play
at intermission is extremely rare for me, but once in a long while I just can’t
help it. I went to Steven Somkin’s Autoeroticism in Detroit because
the title reminded me of Sexual Perversity in Chicago, which launched
David Mamet’s career. As it happens, every word in Somkin’s first
act sounds like he heard it somewhere else, and every character is patched together
from some half-understood cliche. The figures in this tale about an ambitious
GM executive who leaves his wife for his son’s girlfriend are wholly sawdust,
the story has the momentum of an electronics operating manual poorly translated
from the Korean, and the overall concept of drama has the originality of a Velveeta
sandwich on white bread. I shall waste no more words.


Blue Heron
Arts Center, 123 E. 24th St. (betw. Park & Lexington Aves.), 749-3002, through
Jan. 28.


 


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