During the course of a bafflingly brutalizing interview, a young man meekly asserts that his questioners seem to be speaking not only in a “foreign tongue… but a language at some remove from those with which [he is] most familiar.” Words like “rogatory” and “philocubist” are casually tossed about, though it’s not so much the esoteric vocabulary that’s got the poor guy stumped—he’s simply on a different wavelength from the wealthy Mr. Candle and his eager assistant Ms. Curran, who accuse him of belonging to that notorious camp of pointy-toed-shoe-wearing “unusualists,” a code name for misfit liberal troublemakers.
Fortunately, the job applicant’s knowledge of what sounds like torture equipment (“Tom and Jerry Tongs,” “Plunger,” “Chattahoochie Star-Toothed Harrow”) is impressively comprehensive. And though he’s eventually beaten and covered with green slime, his chances of getting the position markedly improve once he’s asked to remove the noose from around his dead predecessor’s neck.
No surprise that the linguistically tormented imagination behind all this belongs to Mac Wellman, whose latest babbling dreamscape, The Lesser Magoo, concludes his “Crowtet” series (which began with A Murder of Crows, followed by The Hyacinth Macaw and Second Hand Smoke). Obviously, it’s not the kind of serial drama where you need to keep up with the story, like some Judith Krantz miniseries. Suffice it to say that the recurring character of the once abandoned Susannah (now known as Ms. Curran) returns as a complicit, power-hungry henchwoman, who comes to recognize in her boss’s young daughter her own nearly vanquished spiritual life.
Continuing his exploration of the way in which contemporary culture subverts not only our children but the very possibility of innocence, Wellman’s sprawling theatrical fantasia doesn’t stint on the usual verbal horseplay. Much of the amusement, however, comes from the way the playwright leapfrogs between theatrical genres. Moving from a menacingly absurdist office drama to a neo-Chekhovian landscape featuring an ensemble of wandering eccentrics, the play unexpectedly shifts into a self-ironizing political monologue, a ghost story, and occasionally even an old-fashioned musical (featuring a cover of “Paper Moon” from the 1932 hit The Great Magoo).
Director David Karl Lee traces with quiet care the emotional resonance of Wellman’s antic characters, all of whom suffer from an unacknowledged state of collective moral bereavement. Dimly lit and punctuated with long silences, the choreography keeps things moving at a deliberately unhurried pace. If consequently the comic rhythm seems off and the verbal gags don’t always land, the production achieves a kind of scenic elegance, movingly enhanced by a musical background of guitar and miniature piano.
As the last incarnation of Susannah, Greer Goodman makes a poignant impression, her eyes offering a glimpse at the toll of unacceptable compromises. Also notable are Alan Nebelthau, as the Old South progressive Democrat too tired to make any more symbolic gestures, and Elzbieta Czyewska, as the rich Old World bohemian whose every recollection predates the relatively brief history of America.
Wellman’s description of the rabid greed and self-interest that are transforming contemporary society into a shameful caricature may seem bleak. But somehow the capacity for deep feeling in his play survives—even if, in the case of Susannah, it’s merely a case of forlorn hope.