Marie Irene Fornes & Judy Elkan

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

Signature Theater, 555
W. 42nd St.

(betw. 10th & 11th Aves.), 244-7529,

through Oct.10.

an impressive career nearly four decades long in the American theater and a
reputation among serious critics scarcely short of reverence, the Cuban-born
playwright Maria Irene Fornes remains relatively unknown to theatergoers in
her adopted country. She belongs to that large but distinguished company of
dramatists who have built extraordinarily important bodies of work but are nevertheless
rarely revived by our major Off-Broadway and regional theaters, addicted as
they generally are to a monotonous diet of trusty standards and "fresh
faces" from yesterday’s headlines. This is precisely the sort of neglect
that Signature Theater, which devotes each season to a single living playwright,
is uniquely suited to redress. Unfortunately, the first offering of Signature’s
all-Fornes season is a checkered affair whose main production is so badly misconceived
it runs the risk of turning people off to her work.

Happy matters first. Drowning,
the three-scene, 15-minute sketch that follows Mud, is a quiet, enigmatic
treat that takes some of the edge off the evening’s disappointment. Written
in 1986 and based so loosely on a Chekhov story of the same title that the original
content is unrecognizable, Drowning presents three grotesquely rotund
and oleaginous creatures whose "heads are large and shapeless, like potatoes,"
speaking together in what may be a cafe, about seemingly trivial matters that
point to fundamental questions about what it means to be human. All are neatly
dressed in vaguely 19th-century style, which is funny in itself given that they
look like mutant sea cows (or melting chocolate frostees), but the more they
talk the more the spectator’s laughter of superiority sticks in the throat.
This is Fornes’ deceptively puckish side, which took the form of realistic
absurdism at times in the 1960s but, just this once, is that of an easygoing
surreal symbolism that looks silly until one recognizes the rigor behind it.

Directed by David Esbjornson,
the production takes place as if in a thick, invisible ooze, with the dispensing
of verbal and visual information carefully paced to produce a series of subtle
surprises. The designer Teresa Snider-Stein, for instance, has conceived the
characters’ marvelously bulbous heads in a way that allows the actors considerable
facial freedom, which they exercise sparingly and shrewdly, inviting minute
inspection of every clumsily graceful expression. The story, too, is full of
deliberate conundrums, beginning with Pea (Marc Damon Johnson), the youngest,
who spies a newspaper and exclaims, "My God, what is it?… It is beautiful…
This must be made by a person," implying that he and the others are not
"persons." Soon after, he asks Roe (Philip Goodwin) what he is "made
of" and is told, "human flesh."

What lends gravity to this
bizarre encounter is the heartbreak that "good" and "kind"
Pea suffers at the hands of a "woman" (presumably human, though we
never see what she looks like) whose picture he sees in the paper. His report
of her cruel rebuff ("You rub me like a piece of meat. You are a piece
of meat") elicits the most humane compassion from Roe and Stephen (Jed
Diamond), which helps drive home the suggestion that the grotesque makeup has
been a trope of magnification–the human animal reduced to sweaty, oily
flesh, uplifted only by the experience of "drowning" in its unavoidable
basic drives. This is remarkably close to the sort of cosmic absurdity Chekhov
had in mind when he called his plays comedies.

Lovely as Drowning
is, though, Esbjornson turns out to be astonishingly unattuned to the squalid
reality of the brilliant 1983 one-act Mud, one of Fornes’ most beautifully
allegorical pieces. Two of this play’s three roles are so poorly cast that
the show often feels like an early rehearsal. The celebrated Beckettian cadences
and rhythms in Fornes’ language–which stresses simple, declarative
sentences and usually acquires stunning lucidity in performance–are quashed
or muddled by overweening emotionality. And her wonderfully ambiguous exterior-interior
setting, originally conceived as "a wooden room that sits on an earth promontory"–a
place simultaneously claustrophobic and pregnant with the prospect of freedom–loses
its mystery entirely in Christine Jones’ cramped design: a plain wooden
floor surrounded by dirt with a few pieces of shabby furniture in front of a
crumbling back wall pushed up close to the audience, and a sky-blue backdrop
behind that with no visible promontory.

Mud tells the story
of the catastrophic attempt of Mae, a bright but illiterate young woman, to
free herself from the sinkhole of poverty and ignorance she has occupied since
childhood with a slow and primitively crude young man named Lloyd. By learning
to read and allowing a kind and literate middle-aged man named Henry to displace
Lloyd in her bed and affections, Mae is briefly filled with wonder and light,
believing she has glimpsed a previously unimaginable horizon. Mae possesses
a certain native eloquence to begin with, but she doesn’t recognize its
value because her words are squandered in petty bickering with Lloyd. (She nags
him to see a doctor, because he suffers from a disease that makes him foul-smelling
and impotent.) Mae: "What do you do when you open your eyes. I work, jerk.
You’re a pig. You’ll die like a pig in the mud. You’ll rot there
in the mud. No one will bury you. Your skin will bloat. In the mud. Then, it
will get blue like rotten meat and it will bloat even more. And you will get
so rotten that the dogs will puke when they come near you."

Henry is first brought in
to read a medical pamphlet too complicated for Mae and quickly becomes a live-in
mate who provides her with occasional feelings of elation and elevation. She
worries, however, that she can’t retain many of the new words and facts
she’s learning, and at one point, after Henry describes the throwaway culture
of the future, she says, "I don’t think I’ll be wanted in such
a world." In a final twist, no less chilling for being a bit schematic,
Lloyd buys medicine with money stolen from Henry and returns to health, while
Henry is disabled in a fall and turns into a childish invalid who expects abject
servility from Mae. There are many ways to read this spare, heartbreaking tale–as
a feminist allegory, a humanist allegory, and even an allegory of language.
As in Peter Handke’s early masterpiece Kaspar, Fornes uses a sparse
environment to highlight and frame the acquisition of social speech by an adult,
associating the quintessentially human ability to name things with liberating
playfulness and then puncturing that vaguely noble image with an adulterated

Regardless how one interprets
the action, however, which isn’t wholly realistic, there’s no question
that, in production, it has to rest on more stable, realistic underpinnings
than this production provides. Neither Deirdre O’Connell’s Mae nor
Paul Lazar’s Lloyd, for instance, comes off for one second as believably
poor or illiterate, and Esbjornson leaves the impression that such considerations
were irrelevant to his concept of the piece. These "poor people" look
like the movie versions of Appalachian hillbillies we saw in Coal Miner’s
, with O’Connell’s squeaky clean, flaming red hair bouncing
about in an ostentatiously unkempt tousle that suggests a lot of vitamins and
protein in her diet. Her locution and movements are incongruously worldly and
confident (holding Lloyd’s nose and rubbing his neck like a cat to get
him to swallow a pill, for instance), and her pronunciation errors while practicing
reading aloud are downright preposterous ("call-ed," "snay-yells,"
"becau-zee") for anyone as securely articulate as she has been when
not reading.

O’Connell at least
has a few scenes in which her overconfidence contributes to Mae’s glow
of pleasure in learning. Lazar, on the other hand, is at odds with his role
from beginning to end, substituting indicated petulance for fear and ineptitude
and inane antics for the crucial sense of pathetic powerlessness he can’t
produce. Only the estimable John Seitz as Henry delivers a performance solidly
rooted in plausible behavior, but since he has no one to pick up his cues he
remains a bell without a striker. Perhaps Esbjornson thought the seamier aspects
of Fornes’ play were in bad taste and in need of esthetic remedy (even
the eight-second freezes between scenes that she calls for, simulating still
photographs in a family album, are deemphasized in dim blue light, as if the
director felt ashamed of or equivocal about them). In that case, he should’ve
given the project over to someone else. At any rate, let us hope the remaining
shows in the Fornes season are entrusted to more sympathetic hands.


Sundays Out of Country
by Judy Elkan

Ontological Theater at
St. Mark’s,

131 E. 10th St. (2nd Ave.),

420-1916, through Oct. 17.

For the first five minutes
of Judy Elkan’s Sundays Out of Country, I thought I might be in for a special
evening. The set is an elegantly cramped space even more compelling than the
one used for her undisciplined but memorably strange Playstation, Levels 1-4
last summer: a back wall and floor draped in a narrow swath of two different
Victoriana upholsteries, with an elegant liquor cart and several cheap chairs
covered in exactly the same upholstery pattern–the ultra-ordinary made
drolly formal. As the preshow music fades–softly played screams of a heavy-metal
vocalist–a genial young man enters (Arthur Nelson Capone) wearing an odd
dark shirt with a collar sewn into the belly, and proceeds to photograph his
own shoes in various whimsical configurations.

So much for the fruitfully
eccentric in this tediously drawn-out 90-minute piece, though. The rest of Sundays
Out of Country
consists of a gathering in the upholstered space of four
actors and a director, who swill absinthe with sugar cubes and never get drunk,
while engaging in various dull exercises, mind games, flirtations, scene-rehearsals
and gossipy chitchat whose purpose is neither explained nor given any interesting
nonrealistic contexts. With the occasional exception of Capone and Susan Tierney,
the acting is deadly dull, the action encompasses long passages from Ibsen,
Schnitzler and others that come to seem as gratuitous as the silly costumes,
and the whole show is practically sagging with lugubrious inertia by the end.
I still root for Elkan’s strange visions, but this misbegotten show just
has too few.