The neurotic Jewish guy in Jerusalem Syndrome is convinced that God will send him a message . . . if only he can go on the right pilgrimage. His delusions, flying thick and fast, are just the kind of self-deceptions we need to survive life’s tumultuous rush. As the resurrected Luigi Pirandello in The Freak of Nature laments, “Life is a sad piece of buffoonery.” Sad it may be, but these two excursions into the madness-edged depths, written nearly a century apart, are steeped in hilarity.
In stand-up comic Maron’s first theatrical monologue, he unleashes a talk marathon, detailing the follies of his lifelong quest for . . . well, something, from the time at age seven when God appeared to him as a giant Mr. Clean. Growing up in a land of towering idols with names like Sony, Nike, and Philip Morris, Maron’s persona seeks “spirituality”— becoming a belated beatnik in college, snorting religious quantities of cocaine in Hollywood, making a “religious text” of the handbook to his Camcorder.
His pilgrimage to Israel with his wife is his latest messianic venture— after holy treks to Jack Kerouac’s grave, to the Philip Morris factory in Virginia, and to Nikeland to buy the perfect hybrid sneakers/hiking boots, a magnified vision of which came to him in a dream.
His persona— whether slouching in a print shirt on a stool or pacing, twitching, waving his arms exultantly— is your casual druggy pal, taking you into his confidence and into his head. The tour is hilarious, as his twisted reason convinces him that every form of madness is revelation. At the Philip Morris “smokers theme park,” he thunders in to break the machinery of addiction only to leave smoking filterless cigarettes. Blasted on coke in Hollywood, he crouches in his closet listening to messages ricocheting off the hangers. Along the way, he delivers uproarious parodies of others, like the college pal fulminating at the mistakes of ‘Nam— “as if he’d really been there.”
The first half of Maron’s monologue— the pre-Jerusalem buildup— is fast and frenetic; lines are mined with laughs that explode only when he’s halfway into the next riff. His manic inventiveness recalls Robin Williams at his best. When he slides into his Israeli narrative, his pace slows. Now he’s a grown-up of sorts— no longer high on drugs but sneakily obsessional and convinced that God will deliver a message to him in Israel. His new Camcorder will become the vehicle. Nearly welded to his eye socket, it stands between him and all he sees as he greets friends, tours the Golan Heights, and spies on Hasidim bathing in the Jordan River. When the camera breaks, he freaks and has a genuine revelation: “I can’t deal with unmediated reality.”
Kirsten Ames, who “directed and developed” Jerusalem Syndrome, displays it in a polished frame with a video sequence at the start— a snapshot of Maron as a freckle-faced kid backed by scary space music and warring voices sonorously announcing product names. At the end we see— in what looks merely like a humorous series of outtakes— a video montage of the Middle East trip: the breathtaking sculpted columns of Petra, sweeping sands, ancient stones. Yet the sequence drives home what he— and we— have been missing for two hours: the rich reality that was only dimly perceptible from behind the lunatic noises in his head.
ââ “Life is so full of itself, we can’t taste it. Only from the past can we savor it.” Pirandello might have been commenting on Maron’s dialogue, so neatly do their preoccupations match. The line is spoken toward the end of The Freak of Nature by a character who’s the playwright’s alter ego. A slight, dapper fellow with a stylish little goatee, a bright red flower in hand (or in his teeth), he is used by adapter/director Slava Stepnov— with text drawn from Pirandello’s writings— to link the three short plays that form this piece: The Vise, Chee-Chee, and The Man With a Flower in His Mouth.
The graceful figure, alternately impish and melancholy, treats the characters proprietarily, dusts them off with his flower, and picks up their discarded clothes, with an ironic smile, after a tryst. His entrances are marked by stylized tableaux, where the characters, in ’20s costume, pose languorously or snake their way onstage to ominous percussion or flights of opera. Sharing his dark vision that we are all deceived— and must be— by ourselves or others, the narrator sets the stage for The Vise.
In this cool tale of dueling deceits, a pair of illicit lovers agonize over whether her husband— who is also his business associate— has discovered them. Was her husband hinting that he knew? Is his genial calm a mask for seeking revenge? The couple turn on each other in their anxiety and guilt. Max Faugno plays the lover Antonio with an exaggerated coiled-and-oiled terror that the other performances do not match. So The Vise, despite a few moments of high tension, lacks conviction.
Chee-Chee, on the other hand, is a delicious piece of gamesmanship. Everyone is deceived and everyone profits. Chee-Chee is a good-looking young society fellow, short on cash but long on charm and connections. When a navy commander comes by to offer him money in return for a business favor done him, Chee-Chee is “insulted” and insists on a favor instead. The older man must act a part: excoriate Chee-Chee before a certain attractive young lady, and buy from her— at a discount— certain I.O.U.s Chee-Chee gave her.
The charade proceeds with gusto. The initially reluctant commander whips up a fervent soap opera of the young reprobate’s ruined old parents, the woman is persuaded, and a hilarious reversal occurs when Chee-Chee reenters the scene. Eric Grant is sinfully appealing as the handsome schemer, Gary Carlson greasily stolid as the Commander, and Nansi Aluika a comic gem as Nada, the spunkily indignant society girl. Stepnov adds some neat, whimsical touches: a teakettle becomes a telephone; a gentleman, clutching his bashed balls, emits a silent howl while an aria blasts his agony.
In the last play, The Man With a Flower in His Mouth, Leo Vilar, who so agilely plays the Pirandello figure, here represents a kind of artist also, if not the playwright himself. This man with the red flower accosts a traveler in a train station with seemingly harmless intent. Or is it? Mortally ill, he distracts himself, he says, by “clinging to the lives of strangers.” Fastidious, excitable, intense, he describes the agonies of living in the imagination, obsessively observing all around him. The commuter, merely a sounding board, is not quite up to responding to the surprise twists. But the piece has its eloquent charms.
Though Pirandello’s dark visions make Marc Maron’s aberrations seem almost like genial eccentricities, both pieces end with a flourish. “See?” they seem to be boasting. “We have, at the least, transformed our madness into art.”