The Drunken Key West of the Soul

Who'd have thought that Mac Wellman, doyen of experimental playwrights, would one day write a feminist rebuttal to Don Juan? His new play, Cat's Paw, examines the other side of the chauvinist myth by eavesdropping on two mother-daughter relationships. Having survived the catastrophe of unbridled sexual relationships, Wellman's women attempt to extract some wisdom from their dissolute experiences. The trouble is that their shame remains largely unspeakable. "I don't want to talk about Bermuda," Jane, the attractively mannish physicist, repeatedly tells her dotty mother, Hildegard, who can't understand why her daughter keeps threatening to leap off the observation deck of the Empire State Building, where they've been taking in the view. Surely a word that also stands for an onion and a pair of colorful shorts is no reason to splatter yourself across 34th Street.

All of the grown women in Cat's Paw have a place that causes them to cringe, somewhere synonymous with their former debauchery and devastation. "The moment for me came in Caracas," Jane's mother confides, while young bratty Lindsay, the daughter of Jane's friend Jo, tells her mom that "the experience of Singapore has rotted the very pith of your mind." From atop the structurally unsound (and strictly off-limits) Statue of Liberty torch, Jo fires back with a lecture on the absurdity of an overly rationalized worldview. "And so what do you do with the human heart?" she asks her despotically unsentimental child. "How do you account for its storms, its Bermudas and Caracases and even its drunken Key West?" As Jo holds forth on the unfathomable nature of the soul, Lindsay, who clearly doesn't want to be another link in the chain of fools, marvels at the tenacious residents of a Roach Motel. Unlike her mother, Lindsay understands that vulnerability is a cultural liability: "America hates the weak, mother, because they are weak."

Static in the conventional sense, Cat's Paw moves subterraneanly through its eccentric dialogue. Wellman has never had much use for tape-recorded realism. Armed with an inexhaustible nonce vocabulary and a shrewd knowledge of the ways we communicate beyond our self-important prattle, he renovates conversational patterns with a metaphoric language all his own. In a characteristic exchange, Lindsay demands to know her parents' species. Told that her father is a beaded snake, she asks, "How can it achieve its object in the world and avoid detection if it has no pot of poison?" "Because it resembles the coral snake," her mother explains, "all things fear it."

Wellman's humorously coded fantasia culminates in a federal courthouse where all four refugees from the battle of the sexes converge. While Jane provides scientific evidence to show that Jo didn't endanger Lady Liberty while climbing up her shaky extremities, Jane's mother keeps Lindsay entertained by spinning grotesque yarns involving gigantic blobs of bacon grease. Though these women couldn't be more temperamentally different, they seem connected, as Jane's mother puts it, by some "co-axial cable." Or perhaps it's just the recognition of "those small motions of the soul" that bond them as they race out to a nearby dive to celebrate the not-guilty verdict.

Everything in director Daniel Aukin's austerely stylish production—from the tunnel-deep stage with its black walls and white floors to the strategically placed microphones—seems designed to allow Wellman's words free range. The top-notch cast, which includes the icy-clear Laurie Williams as Jane and the touchingly pliant Ann Talman as Jo, has a grounding that's crucial when working with Wellman's flights of poetic fancy. If Nancy Franklin's kerchief-wearing Hildegard and Alicia Goranson's teen geek Lindsay stand out, it has as much to do with the wackiness of their characters as it does with the actors' pitch-perfect performances.

Yet with so much to admire, it's disappointing that the experience is ultimately more curious than affecting. Aukin's super-cool aesthetic, nice as it is to look at, freezes the play's emotion. But the problem might just be that Cat's Paw works better as poetry than drama. Theatrical quirkiness—even in such adept hands—can hold an audience's attention for only so long. Wellman's meticulous composition dances subtly on the page. But propelled solely by ingenious chat, it can't help being half a step slower on stage.

 
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