In Dealing With Clair—Martin Crimp’s nasty 1988 play of devious real estate agents and louche Italian nannies—a suburban mother asks a repairman to work quietly to prevent waking a baby. The repairman agrees, and requests “something like a blanket, I could wrap it round my hammer.”
A blanket-wrapped hammer isn’t a bad analogue for Crimp’s theater, provided the hammer is outsized and the blanket somewhat threadbare. Violence, as perpetrated on women, children, the working class, even entire nations, fascinates him. His plays—and many of his translations—survey the causes and effects of brutality. They also treat, often eloquently, the reactions of accessories and observers—their desire to romanticize, fetishize, exploit, or forget the viciousness. However, Crimp frequently drags a modish carpet over the bloodstains. Degradations and murders abound, but only in the mouths of the characters. Physical cruelty is rarely depicted, incessantly articulated. And as Crimp thoughtfully lends those characters his considerable talent for persuasive speech and mordant humor, the words themselves further veil the acts: If horror can be so fluently expressed, surely it can’t be so horrifying.
In Crimp’s 1997 Attempts on Her Life, enjoying its American premiere at Soho Rep, that patina of clever language nearly glosses over the drama. Here, Crimp explores the act of identification as an act of violence—that there is aggression, even sadism, in rejecting subjective interpretation in favor of a single solution. The play consists of 17 scenes or attempts to identify who or what is “Annie.” In the first segment alone—a series of messages left on an answering machine—Annie fills the roles of lover, daughter, artist, customer, and victim. Subsequent scenes add terrorist, refugee, suicide, innocent, cultist, and new car to the list of possible identities. Throughout, the push to pinpoint her is formidable. The speakers’ efforts to nail down the ontology of Annie are placed on par with her alleged bombing of shoe stores and sufferings at the hands of soldiers, hence the title’s double meaning.
Each segment has an individual form and tone. Those answering machine messages rub shoulders with sections structured as interviews, commercials, pop songs, and film treatments. They’re cunningly written (though Crimp does start to repeat himself toward the end), but their smartness detracts from the play’s emotional intensity. Steve Cosson’s direction both helps and harms. He grounds each scene, often suggesting a specific milieu for Crimp’s locationless vignettes, and encourages his cast of seven (all quite good) to make clear choices in their portrayals. But Cosson doesn’t commit to the play’s caustic humor (the sort that elicits a laugh, then makes you choke on it) or to its harsher aspects. His adept but inoffensive staging makes the first half march along briskly but the second drag its feet. Cosson can’t or won’t render Crimp’s nastiness palpable. Considering that few babies are likely to attend, Cosson might care to unswaddle that hammer.
Throwing a blanket over the New Federal Theatre’s Urban Transitions: Loose Blossoms wouldn’t be such a bad idea. The play takes a volatile issue—how the drug trade nearly destroys a middle-class family—and gives it a sitcom treatment. While Ron Milner’s script does not actually include a laugh track, it does employ randy banter, an impish tyke, a mechanical plot, and a suspiciously easy resolution. When paterfamilias Earl (Jerome Preston Bates) suffers an injury, his wife and three children watch his workmen’s comp checks dwindle. Eventually, son E.J. (Chadwick Boseman, offering an insightful performance) takes to dealing drugs.
At first the family enjoys the ill-gotten gains: E.J.’s sisters delight in new sneakers and money for tuition; mother Cheryl (Dianne Kirksey) treats herself to a fur coat. It’s that coat that starts the fur flying, forcing Earl to realize just how the family is staying solvent. Milner’s depiction of the family profiting from the dope is nicely handled and original—drug dealers who are also responsible sons are a type rarely represented. Milner also excels at conveying easy camaraderie: how siblings tease and friends banter, how parents’ playfulness embarrasses the children. But once Earl catches on, ease and originality take a holiday, leaving in its place an episode of “Vigilante Daddy” and platitudes such as “If drugs pay the mortgage, let this house fall.”
Frankly, the audience didn’t seem to mind the platitudes, nor did they quibble at the showboating direct addresses or indulgent freestyling the actors engaged in. With few New York theater companies providing plays by and about African Americans for an African American audience, perhaps it was enough for that audience to watch contemporary troubles depicted by likable actors. But New Federal director Woodie King Jr. ought to trust that audience more. Sure, when Bates lifts his eyebrows to the ceiling or when Kirksey purrs over a new dress it’s a scream, but it’s a good bet we’d be screaming even louder with more challenging material. For all the characters’ discussion of smack, it’s the play that could really use one.