Little stories of little people only became central to the theater in the last half of the 20th century—just when you think it would have surrendered their intimate focus to the electronic media. If you omit a few oddities like Thérèse Raquin, the early Realists and Naturalists worked on a grander scale: Ibsen made his little clusters of people confront some giant issue, with tragic force. Chekhov, working on a broader panorama, wove the minuscule details of daily life into a dense and distinctive stage poetry. Sometimes the broad panorama was Realism’s point: When Lugne-Poe, in Paris in the 1880s, produced a play that provoked shouts of derision from the audience, he simply augmented the cast for the second performance with enough supers—the movie-bred call them extras—to shout back and drown them out.
These days, to judge by two current examples, life is narrower. We’re no longer locked in the living room of the one-set Broadway play, 1950s style, but we don’t reach much beyond a tiny circle of people and their tiny problems. Even this wouldn’t be so severe a restriction if the problems were huge, as in Ibsen, or if you could feel that the people were living them, as in Chekhov, who jumbled the big matters into the tiny details of daily life. Nowadays, though, you more often get the impression that the problems are living the people—a topsy-turvy arrangement more suitable for satire, probably in the manner of W.S. Gilbert.
Evan Smith, who tinkered with Victorian humor in his last work for Playwrights Horizons, The Uneasy Chair, would know what I mean. To give him credit—and he deserves a good deal—his new play, Psych, is always quick-witted, funny, and bright-spirited. If plays are going to be trifles about little people and their problems, such plays can at least have the grace to be diverting trifles like this one. Smith’s central figure is a young woman, a Vassar graduate, who doesn’t know whether the mess of her life is something inflicted on her by chance or something she brings out in others. Naturally, she’s attracted to the study of psychology. A passive-aggressive sentimentalist who earns her living as a dominatrix (under the name “Mistress Serena”), she already has a “Masters in Developmental” and aspires to a Ph.D. That’s where her dramatized troubles begin.
The graduate department that accepts her turns out to be, from preliminary interview to final arbitration, a rat’s maze of psychological games, evasions, denials, and duplicities, turning Smith’s play into a picaresque, tilt-a-whirl version of Mamet’s Oleanna. And just as Mamet buried clues to make sure his teacher-student battle was more evenly matched than it appeared, Smith makes sure that we don’t mistake his student for the game-players’ one-dimensionally innocent prey. He manages this by showing us that her off-campus life is equally a rat’s maze of games, evasions, et cetera, with her rational best pal from college as the principal rat. Or, if you read the situation the other way, as the play’s actual heroine, our trustworthy narrator. The fun, as in certain tales by that other Victorian, Henry James, lies in deciding whether the narrator or the subject is the source of the story’s evil. Or maybe it’s just the way human beings are, the middle-class academic version of a complexly malign destiny.
Whatever the story’s cause, it doesn’t seem important, just highly diverting. Except at a few moments toward the end, where he shows his authorial hand by letting one or the other of his principals explain herself too freely, Smith writes scenes that are cunning as well as vivid, seemingly giving all the emotional data while secreting key bits of fact in the characters’ behavior, to explode later on, amazing those who’ve been following only the spoken dialogue.
You need an astute director and a cast of skilled team players to bring this off, and Smith, who had ill luck last year with Servicemen, has been very lucky here. Jim Simpson’s staging, seamless and unobtrusively pointed, catches the play’s spirit from the first instant, when we see a woman silhouetted on the far side of Kyle Chepulis’s sectioned-off cyclorama, searching for the way onstage. Heather Goldenhersh and Enid Graham, who play the messed-up psych student and her oh-so-sane pal, have both given first-rate performances before, but these are so full, so mannerism-free, and so engaging that they mark a watershed in the development of two major actresses. Their able supporters and tormentors, playing several roles each, are Danny Burstein, Marissa Copeland, Katie Kreisler, and Damian Young, with Copeland and Young squeezing out juicy bitter-lemon comedy as the graduate department’s maddening faculty, and Kreisler working wonders as three very differently traumatized women. Claudia Brown’s costumes have fun running the gamut from bondage wear to lab coats, and Frances Aronson’s cartoon-bright lights are themselves practically an invitation to smile. I may, in fact, have to revise my view of Psych upward: A play that inspires so much good work must have some substance to it.
The substance to Jessica Goldberg’s Good Thing is plain as day, and that’s the problem. Another way to put it might be that Goldberg’s people are interesting, but what they say and do isn’t. Goldberg’s heroine, like Smith’s, is a young girl with a messy life and a messed-up academic career—in this case, a bright student from a broken home in a small upstate town, who’s dropped out of the small college where she was vainly struggling with the demands of a premed program.
But unlike Smith’s Sunny, who always bounces back for another try, Goldberg’s Liz is a flailing, romantic defeatist—back in a clerking job at a mall store, still pining for her high school boyfriend (another troubled, angry bright kid from a broken home), and still turning to her high school guidance counselor for help. I’ve fallen into all these details in summarizing Good Thing‘s setup because Goldberg, though not God, is in the details; unlike Smith, she never withholds any information. The paradoxical result is that we start disbelieving what we hear, and sometimes even what we see. Can Liz’s guidance counselor and his wife, over 20 years married with no kids, really never have gone on a vacation before? Can the teenage crackhead her ex married on the rebound, now seven months pregnant, really start twitching at the sight of the drug when she’s on the verge of giving birth? Maybe so, but the details Goldberg has chosen don’t convince us; instead they’re punched at us repeatedly, with a kind of obstinate overemphasis, seconded by Jo Bonney’s equally overemphatic production, till they ring increasingly hollow.
And—worse luck—there’s no news in the details. When they stop being familiar, they merely become improbable. Say you have a newborn baby; an intruder convinces you you’re incapable of caring for it. So you just drive over to the house of the people she suggests and offer it to them. No doubt it could happen in real life; but if the writer hasn’t created a life that’s convincingly real enough, what it looks like instead is sitcom: Six Jerks and a Baby. For all Goldberg’s honorable struggle to realize her characters, they and their barren lives have an ineffably secondhand air: The older couple, forever recriminating about his long-ago adultery with a student, comes from Pinter; the younger quartet, with their drug-induced angst and abrupt rages, are straight out of Shepard. The few verbal bright spots come heavily marked by the playwright’s self-consciousness.
Goldberg’s finger-pointing combines with Bonney’s pressure to put the actors in a tough situation. To underplay and build simply from within would result in work that looked pallid in context; to yield to the pressure virtually means to overstate. Each of the six good actors slips into the latter condition from time to time; to their credit, most of them look damned unhappy about it. The gifted Chris Messina is the worst backslider, attempting to convey drugged adolescence by running around and yelling a lot. Alicia Goranson holds her own, painstakingly, as Liz, and Hamish Linklater, as her ex, is nearly as good. Cara Buono marches through the unconvincing role of the crackhead mom with taut determination, like the White Queen believing six impossible things before breakfast. John Rothman, as the peccant guidance counselor, tiptoes up to his rages as if wishing they would disappear, which is endearing, while Betsy Aidem, as his embittered wife, surrounds her tantrums with a nimbus of I-shouldn’t-be-indicating-like-this guilt that’s even more so. I started this review by saying that Goldberg’s people were more interesting than what they said and did, but here again I have to rethink: Far from seeing the characters in a different situation, I’d simply like to see all the actors in a play by somebody else.