Alienating Intimacies

Alan Ball tests immigrant identity at home; Tennessee Williams shreds Americans abroad

The first few scenes of Alan Ball's A ll That I Will Ever Be had me gritting my teeth as I steeled myself for another of those empty, go-nowhere plays from medialand that have lately been infesting our theaters, all trendy talk and factitious action. But as Ball's play rolls along, the thicket of buzzwords and brand names in its dialogue gradually clears, revealing a work both serious in its ambitions and not entirely unsuccessful in achieving them. If "not entirely unsuccessful" seems faint praise, bear in mind that Ball has set his ambitions fairly high, and that the honesty with which he pursues them entitles his modest and partial success to a good deal of respect.

Ball's hero is an emotionally vulnerable male hustler who goes by the name of Omar—though this, like much else that he says, turns out to be a fiction; "Omar" is a construct, part real, part personal fantasy, and part invented to appeal to his customers. A foreign-born person who had a traumatic childhood—that's the most we really know about him for certain—he is looking among his customers for a lover who can accept him in some form closer to his true self. This, you can easily guess, is a doomed quest. Hustlers proverbially make lousy relationship material; their clients, not the best in that realm themselves, don't usually like having their fantasies disrupted by the intrusion of their partner's real identity. Add to this the anger and class resentment that make Omar so emotionally needy in the first place, and a client-turned-lover who's nearly a worse mess than him, and you have the makings of a very bumpy downhill ride.

Ball's cunning irony is to perceive this downslide as America's rather than Omar's. For him, his hero's bait-and-switch mythmaking is a defensive strategy, a way to keep potential partners at a safe distance until he's comfortable enough to reveal more of his actuality. What he discovers in the process is how uncomfortable they generally are with themselves, and how deeply unaware of their own position vis-à-vis the rest of the world. Wrapped up in a cocoon of personal issues and material comforts, they see in his demand that they respond to him as a person only an unwarranted intrusion or an inexplicable fit of temper. As those with whom he's trying to build communication pull further and further away, he gets angrier and more aggressive; it's a parable of the making of a sort of interpersonal terrorist. Since Omar is of some indeterminate Middle Eastern origin, the wider application is clear.

Do the hustle: Peter Macdissi & Austin Lysy
Joan Marcus
Do the hustle: Peter Macdissi & Austin Lysy

Details

All That I Will Ever Be
by Alan Ball
New York Theatre Workshop
83 East 4th Street
212-979-1444

In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel
by Tennessee Williams
Abingdon Theatre
312 West 36th Street
212-868-4444

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Ball's central image isn't always easy to buy. The vulnerable hustler hungry for love—who looks suspiciously like that 19th-century cliché, the whore with a heart of gold—just dropped in on us recently via Douglas Carter Beane's The Little Dog Laughed. The echo gives All That I Will Ever Be a hint of Hollywood glibness, from which Ball only breaks free because his writing is more serious in tone and more bluntly explicit in detail than Beane's. The characters against whom Ball sets Omar, too, come off more like carefully chosen special cases (the only person Omar meets who isn't a mess turns out to know all about the Middle East) than the ordinary Americans who might cross an anxious immigrant's path. And Omar's emotional jumps, as graphed in Peter Macdissi's performance, always go somewhat further and higher than the situation warrants.

Macdissi's push toward overstatement, though, is the only notable flaw in Jo Bonney's production, a near-seamless piece of work, giving Ball's sometimes fragmentary narrative a sense of steady forward motion, helped wonderfully by Neil Patel's spare, evocative sets and David Lander's discreet lighting. And the five actors playing Omar's gallery of customers, lovers, and antagonists make up one of those rock-solid New York ensembles that constantly dazzle me with the cultural wealth this city wastes by not having a major repertory company: Patch Darragh, Kandiss Edmundson, Austin Lysy, David Margulies, and Victor Slezak. I'd happily watch them in a new play, or a classic, every week.

None of them, unfortunately, is ideal casting for Tennessee Williams's In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel, a fascinating and unjustly maligned 1969 piece that's like a funhouse-mirror antithesis of Ball's work, setting its trio of narcissistic Americans—a self-destructive, Jackson Pollock–like painter; his embittered, love-hungry wife; and his sleek, uptight dealer—adrift in a foreign country, acting out their private wars to the extreme consternation of a young Japanese bartender. I'm grateful to the White Horse Theater Company for reviving this rarity. Unhappily, the production, stilted and loudly superficial, never comes within shouting distance of the play's tormented core, but the missed connection only makes it easier to study the map of a vivid, sharply written work, daring in its jagged, fragmented prose, with which a first-rate cast could stir up some real excitement.

 
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