Unsound Bites

Is it the end of the century, or is it just me? I keep thinking the theater's meant to be a great unifying place that sweeps its vast vision across all of human experience, but all I find when I go is little bits and pieces of— I was going to say "humanity," but that's not exactly the word. Fragments of simulacra of reductions of humanity would be more like it. Not that the theater hasn't always used such tactics; essences and types and quickly glimpsed single-trait roles are all part of its pictorial arsenal. But there used to be an overarching sense of life that justified the simplifying and foreshortening; the little people-bites were steps on the road to conveying something larger about people. Or maybe I've just been missing the point all along, and the whole function of 20th-century art has been to prove that people themselves are in fact only fragments, trapped in an all-encompassing conformist system that can shrink any artist's imaginative horizons to marketable bite-size.

Take The Eros Trilogy, Nicky Silver's latest work, two monologues and an epistolary duet that map the fragmented lives of types familiar from earlier Silver plays. Here's two versions of Mom, one living on demented dreams of past elegance, the other struggling toward the future in a haze of alcoholic attitude. And here, inevitably, are two versions of her queer son, the first repressed, directionless, drifting through his own dream-states till their disillusionment kicks him into improbable violence, while the second, desperate to escape the scotch-breathed maternal embrace, acts out and lashes out in wild defiance, until guilt turns him all cozy and enabling.

Silver's a skillful writer, and within his familiar framework, everything his quasi people say is convincing. He has comic gifts, so their little narrations are mined with laugh lines that create bursts of glee between the bouts of pathos. Where he falls down is action. In the first half's monologues, everything's happened already; the only "dramatic" problem is why the speakers should be telling us about it— really a problem for the actors, not for us.

T. Scott Cunningham and Betty Buckley in The Eros Trilogy: mail-oriented theater
Joan Marcus
T. Scott Cunningham and Betty Buckley in The Eros Trilogy: mail-oriented theater

In the second half, at least, mother and son can tell each other the news while we eavesdrop. Making no direct contact till the end, they read through the correspondence at matching desks; it's as if Silver had set out to write a gay oedipal version of A.R. Gurney's Love Letters. Like the first half, this nonmeeting of mother and son lopes through a long series of events, beginning with the dim nascence of the son's sexuality as a 10-year-old at camp and ending with him as an established, if minor, L.A. actor recovering from his lover's death. The only surprise, given the way Silver normally toys with the outrageous, is how carefully even the touchiest elements here are made comfy: Mom's an alcoholic, but we never see drinking to excess or any of its hideous effects; we hear about one early incident at the very end, after she's joined AA. Son, in college, takes up with a hustler and evolves a happy long-term relationship instead of getting ripped off, infected, or abused. The events aren't unbelievable, but since they're all narrated instead of happening, you wish they had at least a touch of extravagance.

For that, though, you have to go to the acting. Zak Orth renders the plump, compulsive son of the first half wholly convincing, pitching his emotions feverishly high while skillfully varying his volume and tone. T. Scott Cunningham, as the more stable son of the duologue, navigates the windy prose of his letters with the vivid ease of a champion skier. As a bonus, you can watch him in the shadows while the light is on the other desk, reacting with immaculate precision to every line he's ostensibly reading as Betty Buckley speaks it.

You probably won't have time, though, since you'll be busy watching Buckley, who tackles the challenge of making the same essence of Mom look like two different women with the aplomb and efficiency of a great French chef compelled to turn a single can of Campbell's into two contrasting triumphs of three-star cuisine. Even at this late date in the century, Buckley makes the kind of woman who still goes to a dressmaker, and writes letters to her son instead of phoning, not only credible, but comprehensible and interesting. We can only guess what she might achieve if Silver or somebody wrote a play for her. You remember plays, don't you? They're made up of actions.

Unless, of course, they're by Harold Pinter, master of inaction and misdirection. His having been canonized over the years, not least by himself, makes evaluating him tricky. As it does producing him: Ashes to Ashes, 45 minutes long, is being offered at regular Off-Broadway prices, which would seem less obnoxious if it were self- evidently a great play. Canonization notwithstanding, Pinter's a wretchedly uneven writer. His half dozen or so great works— some of them miniatures— are imperishable masterpieces; the rest are more like the Styrofoam beads that keep the masterpieces from crushing each other in transit.

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