Plautus, Shakespeare, Goldoni, Anouilh: Everyone loves the confusion and the occult aura generated by identical twins. It took Paula Vogel, though, to see them as a perfect image for America’s peculiarly schizophrenic culture. On its surface, The Mineola Twins is a simple, loosely strung narrative, a sort of low-rent Heidi Chronicles times two. But floating above the ostensible story of twin sisters who take opposite paths in life is an allegory of the last half century of our crazed and splintering sociopolitics, while deep down are hints of a buried prototype— one of those ’50s teen chick-exploitation flicks contrasting a “good” and a “bad” girl.
But a mind as broad and intelligently restive as Vogel’s wouldn’t stop at mere genre parody. Having set her opposing twins in the comically snoozy banality of Mineola, she creates a physio-cultural reason for their difference, intermittently visible one layer above the matrix: It’s the ’50s, men are fixated on tits, and Myrna, the “good” twin, has a lovely round pair, while her “nice” (i.e., sexually loose) sister, Myra, is “flat as a pancake.”
Of course, bright, restless Myra acts out— teen rebellion, compulsive promiscuity, constant escapes from Mineola’s village life to the gaudier ways of Beat-era Greenwich Village. Comes the ’60s, there’s radicalism, drugs, a crazy SDS-style holdup of a local bank. Along the way, she borrows Myrna’s uptight fiancé, a stuffy ad-agency junior exec, for an evening that wrecks her square sister’s marital plans, and ironically provokes a brutal payback years later. Devastated Myrna does time in a nuthouse, where she gets shock therapy; Myra does time in jail, where she discovers lesbianism. Each has a son, who inevitably fixates on his mother’s sororal antithesis. Myra, rehabilitated, settles down with a female significant other and goes to work for Planned Parenthood; Myrna, divorced and yearning, spreads the right-wing gospel as hostess of a local talk-radio show, and jokes with Myra’s son about “blowing up abortion clinics.” In the culminating scene, set outside Myra’s clinic, a bomb does go off, but don’t worry: the disunited duo is saved by the same telepathy that haunted their teen dreams.
This skim across the surface action can’t convey the many and varied tactics by which Vogel succeeds in creating an event that’s at once frothily light and almost bewilderingly dense. She doesn’t try to carpenter up a pat explanation for the divergent paths her twins choose, any more than she does for what’s happened to America in our time. The dreams that interrupt the action sometimes have the ring of “real” events, while the “real” moments often suggest standard movie scenes of the various eras, interwoven with social and economic asides that commercial filmmakers would have snipped out. While these ironic one-liners are dropped casually in and left to detonate, key bits of narrative are elliptically jumped over. Between trying to catch the jokes as they whiz by and filling in the data blanks, you get an effect like that of an intellectually provocative video game: the effort it takes is repaid by the fun you have keeping up with it.
If, at the end, the story leaves you unsure what you’ve been through, this too is probably intentional. Like the rest of us, Vogel can only sum up our screwy nation, in this perplexing half century, through images of contradiction. “Good” Myrna, who accepts conventional values unquestioningly, becomes a hideous person, but that doesn’t mean all conventional values are wrong, or that Myrna deserves the hell we see her suffer. “Bad” Myra’s wider range of experience makes her a somewhat wiser and happier person, ultimately, but her road to reason is littered with unrepaired wrongs and unresolved griefs that are still dogging her in the last scene. And it’s surely an intentional irony— one of Vogel’s bitterest— for this female-centered play, in which both heroines end as power figures, to show a next generation consisting of fucked-up males who carry on their mothers’ mirror-image opposition.
The play’s femaleness is underscored by a device inventively handled in Joe Mantello’s production: Not only are the twins played by one actress, but a second female doubles as Myrna’s male fiancé and Myra’s lesbian lover, while a third plays the two prepubescent sons. The biological male presence onstage is reduced to two mute figures used mainly to assist in scene and costume changes. Some male critics will no doubt resent this device, but it would be captious to object when the results are so delicious. First of all, one has to say, assertively, Swoosie Kurtz. Practice saying this in an awestruck tone, which you’ll need for repeating it over and over after her triumphant performance. Mo Gaffney, as the two lovers, is funny in a more casual, broadly played way, while Mandy Siegfried manages to make the two preteen boys heartbreakingly hilarious as well as different. But Kurtz, who can invest the most outrageous moment with a certitude richer than realism, is definitely the show.
Mantello’s staging gives off hints of caution, now pushing for laughs and now seemingly trying to damp them down. He can’t be blamed for nervousness about a work this tricky, but part of me wishes he’d taken a bolder stance— staging the whole thing like a cheap b&w movie, say, or like one of Red Grooms’s ruckuses. Myrna’s hospital dream, done as a swoony musical number, and lit by Kevin Adams in the oozy pastels of late-’50s MGM (think Mitzi Gaynor), has the kind of stylistic authority I mean. The scenes mostly don’t; the clinic showdown should probably be played at double the current tempo.
Martin Crimp’s contemporary play, The Misanthrope, is all current tempo and no past, though CSC eccentrically wants to give some old guy named Molière credit for it. The issue of translation versus adaptation seems to confuse people, though it’s really very simple. Putting the play the original author wrote into our language is translation; using it as an excuse for a different play of your own is, usually, playwriting. Crimp’s play, which has some lively talk and an amusingly jaundiced view of today’s culture makers, contains virtually no Molière, and would probably be better if it shook off its few remaining 17th-century encumbrances, like its weird desire to ape his rhymed couplets with ragged meters and jangly half-assonances.
Crimp’s characters are a working showbiz elite; Molière’s are the vocationless power figures around a royal court. But artists dishing each other— an ongoing part of their collegial relations— is qualitatively different from a nation’s moral leaders challenging each other’s integrity. When Crimp’s Alceste kvetches about “another play by David fucking Hare,” he just means they should have done his play instead; what Molière’s Alceste does is more like standing up in the Senate and saying, “Why are you guys all such fucking liars?” The deals that Crimp’s people live for— money, publicity, sex— are built into their profession: In trying to give Molière’s plot immediacy, he’s ironically robbed it of its power to shock. And the original’s classical structure gives his world of tabloids, cokeheads, and fax machines an oddly lumpy rhythm.
Not that the result’s disastrous: Narelle Sissons’s off-angle, mirror-backed set pushes the uneven cast into lively motion, and Barry Edelstein’s staging wisely lets the self-referential text do its own deconstructing. Roger Rees attacks the role of Alceste fiercely, pouring out too many effects too early, but the range of his pourings is impressive. Nick Wyman has good smirky fun as a critic and would-be playwright, while Mary Lou Rosato, as a Juilliard faculty member, does a droll combined caricature of several well-known acting teachers. Best of all is the ultimate evidence that our daily press knows nothing about acting, and less about beauty. Movie stars onstage usually make me yawn, but Uma Thurman has presence, elegantly composed features, strong emotional focus, an attractive voice, and precise diction. Her sense of vocal color could improve; the simple cure for this is more experience. I hope we see her in a dozen plays over the next few years. As Rosato tells her at one point, she might even play Célimène.