11 - 13 December '04
11 dec TWO BY HOROVITZ Alarm Clock Theatre Company BCA 125
There's something to be said for "critical detachment" after all.
The lady seeing these plays with me was viscerally moved by the second play on the bill --- to the point that I expected her to run from the theatre to escape the experience.
After the show we didn't stay for a talk-back with Luke Dennis, the director, and the cast --- and it took a few blocks of talking before she was calm enough to appreciate the eerie effect the damp air was having on the street-lit scene.
It wasn't the play itself --- though "The Indian Wants The Bronx" is a long, unrelenting exploration of two anti-social adolescents spiralling into gratuitous violence. The play actually Reminded her that, just outside the Fifth Wall separating the audience from the World, just that sort of gratuitous violence is more the norm than the exception. For anyone in empathy with today's reality, the play was a reminder than we live in a hell that makes Heironymous Bosch look like a Pollyana.
What saved me from her reaction was the fact that I had asked for a second program on entering the theater --- i.e., I was "working"! Yes, I was "experiencing the play" but some part of me knew I was experiencing it in order to talk about it later. And that "critical distance" let me focus more on the plays themselves As Plays and on how the cast and the director handled bringing those plays to life, artistically, on that stage. I could leave the possibility of being mugged on the way home and the senseless deaths of soldiers in Baghdad outside that Fifth Wall, and could concentrate on what I could see inside the Fourth one.
So what was I thinking?
Well, I just this moment noticed that these were called "two groundbreaking one-act plays" by Alarm Clock Theatre Company's Director Luke Dennis, and the program also included a two-page appreciation of Israel Horovitz' career. And in a sense I didn't much mind missing the Talk-back because what I was thinking was much more about the plays themselves than what the director and the actors had done with them.
They are both very Young plays.
And I don't by that mean just that I saw "The Indian Wants The Bronx" at The Charles Playhouse in the late 1960's when Horovitz was a new playwright. I man they have "apprenticeship" written all over them. They both look like they came out of a sort of Playwriting 101 formula: take two unlikely people, put them together in a setting and make them talk about something; now make them answer whatever questions about them have arisen. I've seen so many plays fitting this formula that I feel it must be out of someone's How-To textbook.
For "It's Called The Sugar Plum" Horovitz used his dorm-room at Harvard and two undergraduates --- one a nerdy "Lit" major (probably still virgin) confronted by an angry painter/actress. She says he destroyed her life because, the previous night, her skate-boarding fiance fell under the wheels of his car and was killed. He pleads it was an accident, they talk, and by slow degrees they end up in bed together. (I said this was a "young" play, didn't I?)
Okay, but I never saw the points at which the initial argument switched, by those slow degrees, from A to B, and it seemed to me that the director never pin-pointed them for the actors. It is true that Sally Dennis is an intensely powerful actress that stormed onstage like an angry buzz-saw, while Brian Polak played little but a wide-eyed punching-bag. But I could see nothing but the playwright's short attention-span moving the action from angry tragedy to love. And even with such a gush of adolescent quirkiness in the lines, the job of a production is to make some human sense out of it all.
For "The Indian Wants The Bronx" Horovitz took a pair of unreconstructed juvenile delinquents at a New York bus-stop and flung them at a bewildered (Indian) Indian lost on his second day in America with no English whatever. Confronted with an older man who can't even ask for help --- he has a photo of his son with his name on it --- their reaction is insult and ultimately mayhem.
In everything they do, these two act as each other's appreciative audience, escalating bad language, "noogies" one-upmanship and banter as they monkey-dance around a new audience and object of their derision. It's only when one is left alone with poor Mr. Gupta that things really turn physical.
Again, I saw little structure imposed on this spew of unfocused self-hatred.
In their insult-matches, Adam Reed as Murph regularly demeans his mate's mom, but every time Bil Gaines as Joey turns the insult back, Murph seems seriously, angrily offended, and when alone, Joey explains that Murph's mom really IS a hooker. That says to me that there are levels of seriousness within these two disgusting louts that need to stand out as much as the prickly sense of possible violence does. I felt there should have been moments when I could see someone's mask of bravado slip and some real truth about himself fell out. A few of such serious moments could have shaped Horovitz' long one-act into something other than what felt like an over-long surface exercize in more-of-the-same.
As it was, only Bharat Bhushan as Mr. Gupta, occasionally bursting into his native language, looked touchingly believable --- though the tirades and posturing going on around him often gave him no motivation for his silent hoping for the bus that never comes.
Apparently it took Horovitz a long time to write his way past these young exercizes in formula and violence. Even a later play "The Widow's Blind Date" feeds on both, but adds a structural gimmick involving the widow's ultimate motivation for bringing on the mayhem. At least he learned by then to bury something dictating a structure under the inarticulate sparring that paid off.
But these two young plays, it seemed to me, needed a much stronger director's hand to come alive and make sense. Otherwise, like my friend, the audience mind is free to free-associate, possibly with unexpected results.