Jane is searching for the origin of evil, the root of denial, and the basic human weakness that causes us to fear death. That, at least, is how the plucky protagonist in Lisa D’Amour’s “thriller in seven scenes” describes her mission as she carries out the commands of a mysterious “panel.” Her specific goal is to hunt down a childhood friend, Prospero, whose parents committed a double suicide that she and Prospero both witnessed. Jane burns down his Florida beach house, poisons his daughter at a disco in Spain, and stalks him by masquerading as a servant on his yacht somewhere in the Adriatic. Thrown overboard, Prospero’s wife ends up paralyzed; Prospero ends up dead. And Jane gets hauled before the unseen panel on charges never quite clear.
Quest stories are big on linear plot, of course, but what makes Red Death crackle for 70 minutes is D’Amour’s spare and sinister language, which twists and tangles the traditional narrative line. For the most part, the play is structured as a series of tight dialogues between Jane and those she deceives: her father, a panel detective, Prospero, his wife, and his daughter. Each exchange opens more questions than it answers. “I work for a panel of experts who are engaged in a massive research project,” she tells her bewildered father. “We are exploring how to maximize Good in the world. The code word for the project is ‘Cup o’ Kindness.’ ”
From the first scene, it’s clear enough that Jane lies, so there’s nothing reliable about anything she asserts, yet she becomes increasingly likable as the action unfurls. In part, that’s because D’Amour stages deeds that contradict what gets said about them, raising doubts about our own reliability as observers, and demonstrating how prejudice can alter the plain facts of evidence.
Playing Jane, Maria Striar hits just the right level of petulance to make her seem righteous in her pursuit rather than just obnoxious. The cast, in a pert production directed by Anne Kauffman, generally avoids the cartoony exaggerations that too often pass for acting in post-mod plays these days. Perhaps the younger actors have taken a cue from downtown treasure Mary Shultz, who plays Prospero’s wife, Connie. A 20-year veteran of the avant-garde, Shultz can build depth and texture into a character from the outside in. She puts Connie’s ridiculousness right on the surface, but shows currents of complexity rumbling beneath.
As an inspiration, D’Amour claims Edgar Allan Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death,” in which rich revelers party away at a secluded abbey in a failed attempt to evade the deadly plague gripping their town. D’Amour picks up some images and the ominous tone of Poe’s story without borrowing his characters, plot, or baroque prose. Most of all, there’s an emotional affinity between the works—a creepy mix of sympathy and repulsion. Poe describes the revelers’ costumes as having “much of the beautiful, much of the wanton, much of the bizarre, something of the terrible and not a little of that which might have excited disgust.” It would make a good marquee line for D’Amour’s cunning play.
The nebbishy hero of Reading Hebron—Nathan Abramowitz—conducts his own search for the origin of evil, the root of denial, etc. But in Jason Sherman’s 1996 quest narrative, the force behind Nathan’s effort is all too real: the 1994 massacre of 29 Palestinians praying in a Hebron mosque by Jewish settler Baruch Goldstein. Nathan becomes obsessed with understanding Goldstein’s deed: Was it the work of an individual madman, as an Israeli government inquiry found, or did official policies and the acceptability of anti-Arab hatred make the government and the society—and maybe the whole Zionist project—somehow culpable?
Never mind the answers. Especially in ultra-polarized times like today’s, such questions alone raise the potent ire of those who insist that Israel can do no wrong. Sherman escapes some of the wrath, perhaps, by making Nathan such a putz. Of course Nathan would think that way: He’s a bleeding-heart, North American, assimilated Jew, hawkish detractors would say—and in fact, do, when avid proponents of various views appear from Nathan’s imagination to try to win him to their side.
These manic scenes are the play’s strongest. In one, Nathan declares that Jews must recognize the humanity of Palestinians, and out of nowhere a singing group of activists comes dancing from the wings to wrap him in a Palestinian flag and throw a kaffiyeh over his head. In others, he engages Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, Cynthia Ozick, and his dead grandfather.
Less richly, the play depicts Nathan as a failed husband and father, unable to commit to either a relationship or a job. Sherman telegraphs his family’s attenuated relationship to Judaism over the generations in a formulaic sequence of increasingly shallow Passover seders. Nathan’s overbearing mother is an even more unfortunate cliché.
Relatively Theater offers a technically uneven but spirited production; most impressive, they have chosen to give the Canadian play a U.S. production. The work matters now not so much because it’s topical, but because the space for dissent has been so shut down. Opening it up is not only good for the Jews; it is also good for the theater.