It Takes A Villager

But Can a Solo Show With a Botanical Punchline and a Rare Muskrat Be an Action Movie?

 Berkshire Village Idiot, Michael Isaac Connor's one-man narration-with-characters—you couldn't really call it a play—is the story of a hyperactive teenage outcast named Michael Connor, coming of age in a mythical Berkshire village named Berkshire Village. To judge by the characters' propensity for picking absurd arguments that escalate into violence, everyone in Berkshire Village is a bit of an idiot. Their violence, in Connor's eyes, tends toward the Hollywoodish, as if Arnold Schwarzenegger were still making movies instead of wrecking state budgets.

Having spent at least a small part of every summer in the Berkshires since the early '70s, when Connor was probably an infant, I recognized the terrain. Connor doesn't deal with the Berkshires as a summer and weekend retreat for artsy upscale New Yorkers, nor with the local ruling elite, nor with the visiting wealthy whose vast estates have over the years evolved into expensive spas and rest homes. Nor does he have much to say, except in passing, about the farmers who still thrive there, or the small industries that have slowly gone belly-up, leaving shuttered plants and abandoned quarries in their wake. Connor's characters are from the struggling villager class caught in the tailwinds of these big industrial and economic shifts, evolving their own subsistence economy and their own culture from whatever remnants nature, history, and globalization have left them. These are the Berkshire residents, whom summer people like myself only glimpse in passing: those whose every front lawn is a small automobile graveyard and for whom Tanglewood is not a concert venue but a good place to get stoned in the off-season. At any gathering of their high school population, you can pick out, at first glance, which kids are going on to college, and which will end up, within two years, in reform school, jail, or the military.

Probably because his piece is steeped in autobiography, Connor, a lanky, energetic actor with a long jaw and big, hopeful eyes, shows only a fleeting consciousness of his characters' social plight. He's too preoccupied with their eccentricity as "characters" in the lesser sense, with the unremittingly schizoid mix of brutality and generosity they display toward one another. He's also steeped in a kind of Barry Fitzgerald Catholicism: This is certainly the only rural New England tale in which the local priest becomes a point man for the EPA. (Among the script's few original touches are its flashes of interaction between the area's Catholic and old-Yankee cultures.) Most of all, Connor's preoccupied with his parents, the ex-boxer turned Air Force man who's off in Thailand repairing bombers, and the GE plant worker struggling to keep her rebellious son from exploding during his father's absence. Neither parent, as you've already guessed, bothers much about saying "I love you" or displaying signs of emotional support unconnected with disciplinary rebukes. It's as if the family took its emotional cues not from its own ethnic and religious background—you'd hunt in vain for a hint of Catholic caritas—but from the rocky soil and autumnal atmosphere of the surrounding terrain, as if New England had created a new crossbreed of Irish Calvinists, whose reluctance to show affection was only equaled by their breakneck willingness to go for the jugular in all tense situations. I've never heard an ambulance siren in the Berkshires in my life, but Connor's characters keep the EMS squads hopping. In his hour-and-a-half piece, there's either a major brawl or a 911 call roughly every 12 minutes.

Mountain do: Michael Isaac Connor's vested interest
photo; Carol Rosegg
Mountain do: Michael Isaac Connor's vested interest

Details

Berkshire Village Idiot
By Michael Isaac Connor
Zipper Theater
332 West 37th Street
212.563.0480

And it's all about a chance glimpse of a muskrat. (Be sure not to miss the muskrat, who rates only one mention.) The population of Berkshire Village is split in half over the survival of a pond near the Connor house. Yes, it borders the property of a somber, unspeaking Yankee, bowed down by a mysterious grief and feared even by the local wiseacres. And, yes, young Mikey speaks up at that EPA hearing, and as a result all griefs are explained and all immediate grievances magically vanish. I told you it was Hollywoodish. Still, it isn't torture. (I can see that this is going to be my mantra for the coming theatrical season.) Connor is a slapdash but appealing performer. He doesn't immerse himself deeply in his characters, like Eric Bogosian (who has worked along some similar bad-kid tracks); nor can he switch roles on a dime with the dizzying speed of Jefferson Mays in I Am My Own Wife; nor create a whole scene with the panache of David Greenspan. Touching as Connor is in some moments, you won't catch him near the emotional depths tracked either in a social-issue piece like Marc J. Wolf's Another American Asking and Telling or in a personal, family-centered study like Lisa Kron's 2.5 Minute Ride. He is just a skilled actor who comes from interesting people—most human beings are interesting to some degree—and who has worked up a mildly interesting story about his adolescence. He's exaggerated the window smashing and so on a little, as one does to give a story wider appeal; in the theater, though, this also gives it a slightly factitious ring. Barry Edelstein's proficient staging keeps him moving and uses the Zipper's gritty atmosphere effectively, without making the audience feel badgered. Maybe he and Connor have dreams of turning the piece into a sort of action-update of a little-people flick—Mr. Deeds Goes to Pond, as it were. It's pleasant enough onstage, I guess; now would somebody kindly produce a play?

 
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