Life Unsurance

This Thing of Darkness, in contrast, sometimes slides off its imaginative tracks. But what it's trying to imagine—the future—is much harder than catching a sense of our weirdly indeterminate present. Nobody knows today if Earth'll even exist 50 years from now—don't those melting polar caps make you nervous?—and guesses like the ones Lucas and Schulner make in their play are never more than guesses, so that they don't quite stand up even as warnings. Future-shock games are also less easy to play onstage than in film, with its F/X dazzle: The scientific shenanigans always have a jerry-built ring to them, and the temptation to pick holes in the situation increases as you go along. This Thing's 50-year advance look apparently includes some kind of fiery wipeout for the East Coast, despite which one character has been carefully kept in uninformed innocence, with an unabating supply of the pills that keep him alive. And his hermetically sealed residence started the play as a drafty summer cottage; its wicker couch remains placidly unchanged after half a century.

Those, however, are quibbles. The disconcerting element in This Thing of Darkness is that, though it seems to have been written to dramatize how we might face the problematic world to come, it makes sense on the human level rather than on the futuristic; if the writers had begun the action in 1950 and concluded it in the present, leaving the story as is but not inventing imaginary holocausts and telephonic implants in skulls, it would probably be just as valid and more cohesive. As things stand, the struggle to pin down the future keeps getting in the way of the relationships, sometimes actively confusing us about them. Lucas, as director, doesn't help clarify things by stretching a gender-theory point: Since people become like their parents, we get to watch Chris Messina turn into Mary McCann who becomes Larry Keith. I prefer Oscar Wilde's dictum that no man becomes like his mother, which is his tragedy.

Robert Sella and Malcolm Gets in Boys and Girls: stressing for dinner
photo: Carol Rosegg
Robert Sella and Malcolm Gets in Boys and Girls: stressing for dinner


Boys and Girls
By Tom Donaghy
Playwrights Horizons at the Duke
229 West 42nd Street

This Thing of Darkness
By Craig Lucas and David Schulner
Atlantic Theater
336 West 20th Street

Even so, there's a lot of beauty in the writing—and, expectably with Lucas in charge, lovely performances from all six actors. While the awesome alterations in things to come are carefully left blank for our paranoias to fill in, the contradictory and unresolved nature of the relationships is just as carefully spelled out, and the two mismatched columns of figures add up to something that's often haunting as well as unnerving. If Lucas and Schulner can't state with assurance where we're going to end up, it's no fair blaming them when none of us knows exactly where we are. As with Donaghy, the value of their work is that they imagined something which catches, temporarily, the spirit of our confusion, and if art can't help us clarify our lives (as it doesn't seem able to, lately), the least it can do is make clear to us that we need to clarify them ourselves, and that it is getting way past the time to do so. Quick, before Caliban assaults Mamie O'Rourke.

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