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Something is disquietingly wrong with David Esbjornson’s production of Maria Irene Fornes’s Mud. It doesn’t perturb me much because I’m used to being disquieted by Fornes’s works; disquiet is their natural habitat. Fornes writes very simply and clearly: The actions in her plays are always specific, the words few and precise. There’s no fuzz and very little decoration. Yet the overall effect is of something complex, initially often puzzling, and ulti-
mately quite rich in retrospect. If the surface bareness is what disquiets new arrivals, they should be warned that only deeper disquiet lies ahead. You never “solve” a Fornes play; it lingers at the back of your mind to bother you.

Mud, for instance, is a sparse, 70-minute piece bursting with matters left unexplained. Mae and Lloyd live in a house in what’s apparently a rural area; only later do we learn what their relationship is and how they came to be there. Radios and telephones exist, yet the 20th century seems barely to touch the characters. Mae can read with difficulty; the slow-witted Lloyd is illiterate. Henry, who is invited by Mae to move in with them, can read and write, making him in Mae’s eyes an almost godlike figure. There is a larger community outside, but we never learn anything of how it functions, or how it views these three odd fish.

The less than fully explained situation is matched by the not fully sequential action, which proceeds in unexpected jumps through a series of short scenes, each ending in a freeze-frame tableau. Mae irons endless pairs of trousers (presumably working as a laundress to support herself and Lloyd); she reads aloud from what sounds like a children’s book about fish (schoolwork?), and dreams of a better life. Lloyd suffers from some unspecified disease, but first won’t go to the clinic, then doesn’t know how to take the pills they prescribe for him. He resents the much older Henry who, having been brought in by Mae to read Lloyd the clinic’s explanation of his symptoms, displaces him as Mae’s lover. When Henry is seriously injured in a fall, Mae finds herself trapped between the two impaired men; when she has to leave Henry in Lloyd’s care, a crisis erupts. The violent climax contains what amounts to a bleak joke on the rules of playwriting: A rifle, which has never been alluded to before, is fired, fatally; an axe that Lloyd has hefted in the opening scene is never used again.

The surprise in looking back after the ferocious ending is to realize how rounded the characters are, despite the gnomic blips and flashes in which Fornes draws them, and what a strong case the script makes in defense of each of them. Low as they are, and unpleasant as they become to each other in the worsening situation, they all have yearnings, dreams, aspirations. And each expresses, movingly, a desire to be loved and respected and treated well, which gives their horrid behavior a startling dignity. They all deserve better than to be stuck in the literal and figurative mud of the play’s misery, but they were born there and there they are; each thing they try to alleviate the situation makes it worse. Mae, who is the one striving most actively to escape, also displays the most compassion. With a name that’s both a month in spring and a conditional verb, she has the most hope. Yet she’s also, unwittingly, the final tragedy’s cause as well as its principal victim. In part, her problems, and the men’s, stem from their inability to step back and take a larger view of the situation; their immediate needs are too pressing. “A poor man,” as Fornes wrote in a song lyric from her brilliant early musical Promenade, “doesn’t know/Where his pain comes from./There is a dark wall/And a closed door/And a dirty old room/And he doesn’t know how he got there.”

A humanist in modernist garb, Fornes is a maddening challenge for directors, especially in terms of tone. The temptation to do too much with such promising material is always present, but Esbjornson has found an unexpected and almost virtuous way of succumbing to it. On its own terms, his production is unfaultable— beautifully realized in every department, particularly Scott Zielinski’s lighting, which rounds the actors with an almost lush tenderness. The performances, by three first-rate actors, are carefully rooted in the action, elaborately three-dimensional. And the result is that they nearly smother the life of the play, sticking it down into a different kind of mud, of elaborate emotional and social realities that make the characters seem exhibits in an alien environment instead of people with whom the audience can connect. (Fornes’s own production, 16 years ago, was far less dark and “real,” but the play’s full sense emerged with such staggering force that it left a permanent picture in my mind’s eye; its clean, open stylizing gave us room to see the reality underneath.) It’s a perplexing approach for Esbjornson, who’s used exactly the less-is-more tactic I’m talking about effectively with writers as diverse as Beckett and Arthur Miller. And he compounds the puzzlement by finishing the evening with Drowning, a tiny, elegiac meditation, adapted from a Chekhov story, on the mysteries of hopeless love. Esbjornson’s handling of this piece is tonally perfect; the disquiet at the end comes from an effect achieved by author and director in harmony. It can’t just be because the suffering characters of Drowning are potatoes rather than humans; Esbjornson knows how to read subtler clues than that.

Even the subtlest reader couldn’t find more in Epic Proportions than director Jerry Zaks has found— half a dozen good jokes, and enough mild smile-provokers to keep you in your seat for 90 minutes without writhing. It ain’t much, but Zaks has dressed it up prettily: bright cartoon sets by David Gallo, brightly goofy costumes by William Ivey Long, and a few likable comic performers. If you think that’s worth Broadway prices, buy now.

The basic joke, if you’re still interested, involves an interminable biblical epic taking an interminable time to film in the Arizona desert. The authors can’t decide whether it’s a satirist’s joke on moviemaking or a metaphysician’s joke in which the horrific things being filmed actually happen to the cast. Having no plot, they vacillate lamely between the two. In keeping with our Republican era’s reverence for money, this is the first American play about filmmaking to contain not one rude reference to producers, studios, or financial backers. In the cast, Alan Tudyk is mildly funny, Kristen Chenoweth is pleasant enough to make me wish people would stop overrating her, and Ruth Williamson, whose comedy in other hands has tended to be ragged and scattershot, delivers a crisp, neatly focused performance; I hope she keeps working with Zaks, preferably on plays that aren’t distended leftover Sid Caesar sketches. Just think, though: If Caesar’s mid-’50s movie spoofs had been 90 minutes long, television might have died in 1955, and this country might be civilized today.