“Farce is seldom in good taste,” the playwright Ron Tavel wrote in Gorilla Queen, “but genitals always are.” The trouble with The Wax, Kathleen Tolan’s intriguingly savorless new work, is that it never gets to the genitals. People strip, at least partially; people walk in on people having sex with partners other than their own spouses; people rush stagily into illicit embraces; people hide in closets or under beds to avoid confrontations. The whole panoply of farcical preludes and interruptions to genital interaction is present, and—weirdly—almost none of it is funny or exciting, because the characters simply don’t desire each other, or anything else, enough to make us care about their carryings-on. Gathered in a seaside hotel for somebody’s wedding—whose, and how they all know each other, are matters Tolan brushes off as irrelevant—this gabble of intelligentsia seizes any chance to dodge sex and speculate, instead, on the nature of love, the function of art, or pretty much anything else, touching overfamiliar bases—Proust, Pushkin, Alban Berg—as they go.
Apart from their familiar ring—suggesting the Allergist’s Wife’s more Germanic cultural pursuits after the kids have grown up and the sexual urge died down—the characters’ cerebrations reduce the farce gestures to a set of random tics. Over and over, couples jump on each other passionately, no matter whom they know is returning momentarily or tidying up in the next room; next they hear someone coming, panic, and hide either under the bed or in the closet. Then two more people arrive and have a pleasantly abstract conversation, in the course of which those in hiding are either discovered or emerge, to minimal surprise and zero recrimination. Nobody’s angry, nobody’s threatened, nobody’s panicked or guilty or ashamed. You’ve never seen a farce so riddled with sedate—or possibly sedated—behavior. Maybe it’s farce for the Prozac generation.
I kept searching for the no-nonsense, vulgar character whose crassness would rip away this veil of genteel intellection, like Martha Raye in Monsieur Verdoux—the one who’d be willing to steal, kill, or do anything outrageous and destructive for passion’s sake, or even just for the hell of it. At first, my money was on Mary Testa, in the nebulous role of a predatory lesbian who also seems to be married with children. Testa, a plump bundle of good humor with a mop of electrified hair and a truck-braking voice, is accustomed to the extreme gestures of musical comedy; on a small stage like Playwrights Horizons’, when she rolls her Eddie Cantor eyes, even the William Morris wallpaper on Walt Spangler’s set seems to cringe in response. She, I hoped, might blast the thing wide open. But no, when her smooching with the heroine was interrupted, she slid meekly under the bed—one of the first to do so, in fact—and emerged from beneath it, smoothing down the dress she’d managed to put back on while concealed, as mannerly and unperturbed as everybody else. I started hedging my bets: Maybe the explosive component would be fleshy, basset-hound quizzical Robert Dorfman, as the failed composer turned schlock novelist, whose career switch paralleled his spousal switch from straight to gay. No dice: His height of ecstasy came while crooning the favorite tone-rows from Wozzeck that had shown him his lack of originality as a composer.
Maybe, I thought, the gunpowder would catch a spark from Laura Esterman, as Dorfman’s resentful, love-hungry ex-wife; she claimed to be less intelligent than the rest (“I just have a day job”), and had a propensity for spilling drinks on her ex-hubby, not to mention a temptress-red dress, one of costume designer Elizabeth Hope Clancy’s many ingenious red herrings. Could the byplay of Esterman’s limpid eyes and I’m-so-bruised inflections lead to some towering frenzy? Nope: She also maintained her self-restraint, even exchanging sociable remarks with her ex-husband’s new beau. Only tremors of inhibition were emanating from Mary Shultz, whose portrait of a stray guest seemed to pay homage to Mildred Natwick. And Gareth Saxe, as the available hunk who ultimately deflects Esterman’s resentment, was clearly set up as the group’s resident nonviolent dimwit, much more eager to dwell on the loss of his last love than to initiate any new thrills. He, too, had an engaging doggish wistfulness, but I was losing hope fast.
Neither Karen Young, as the haplessly indecisive heroine, nor Frank Wood, as her muted mathematician husband, promised much in the way of explosions, with Wood slurring hastily through his lines like a broker dumping a bad stock before it crashed. I did enjoy watching his eyes glaze over again as each new arrival started his or her recitation; I don’t know any other actor who can make his eyes seem to acquire glaze in successive layers, like pottery. Young’s eyes, like her whole persona, stayed alert throughout, focused in puzzlement on some absent core quality. This is a heroine who dismisses even what’s apparently her suicide attempt—occurring offstage, of course—as the product of momentary distraction. Young holds her place strongly at this vacuous center, presumably by centrifugal force, but nothing’s precipitated thereby.
The closest the evening got to any higher dramatic temperature was a monologue, delivered with showstopping ferocity by David Greenspan, in which the composer’s new lover, a drama critic, relives, not his passion for someone else, but a drunken fury in which he declares his desire to be accepted as himself. That somebody involved in the onstage events has taken up this offer amounts to no more than a footnote after the monologue’s climax; and the reality of the whole spiel is vitiated, anyway, by Tolan’s naming the drama critic Ben: Everybody in New York knows that there are no drama critics named Ben. Greenspan, sleekly smug, seemed to coat his character’s empty aphorisms with honey as they spiraled off his tongue, provoking the few smiles that occurred after Testa’s toning down. Occasionally, Brian Kulick’s staging prodded a meager laugh or two out of the recurring farce business. But my hopes of substance and pleasure were almost gone by the time Lola Pashalinski arrived. The heroine had spoken of getting her legs waxed, and here was the queen of the Ridiculous, toting a Russian accent and a massage table, both slightly unwieldy.
Do you think the redoubtable Pashalinski saved the evening? Don’t kid yourself: This is a postmodern farce, and all expectations must be disappointed equally. She did her routine well, pretending to pluck the hairs from Young’s dainty legs as she poured out the monologue that all Russian émigrés doing menial jobs deliver in American plays, about Pushkin and Chekhov and how no American pain can be as great as Russia’s pain. I’ve heard versions of it so often, I’m no longer sure who actually thought it up, the émigrés or the playwrights. Pashalinski, wisely, declined to wallow in it, ending the evening with the sense that, after all, a different play from another culture and a past era would have been an improvement. The cast makes pleasant enough company; the conversation Tolan supplies for them is never foolish in itself. But the desire to engage the audience in any transaction remotely resembling a dramatic event does not seem to have occurred to her. She has better things to do with her time, one feels, than writing plays. The public may come in eager to make love; Tolan, like her heroine, is busy thinking about something else.