We’re living through one of the great shifts in the world’s consciousness. Everything’s changing, from climate to cataclysms, and everybody knows it, though nobody knows what to do about it or how to address it. Naturally enough, under the circumstances, the theater’s as uncertain as any other social institution. Uptown, where money’s the motive, the experts are as baffled as anyone else about what sells tickets: Imagine trying to explain to Flo Ziegfeld or Mike Todd a Broadway on which the biggest success is a universally panned work whose only point of interest is a glimpse of a middle-aged lady taking her clothes off in the dark.
Downtown, where the quality of the achievement is ranked as slightly more important than its earning power, matters aren’t noticeably clearer. There’s a great interest in unmaking or defusing the past, aiming the light of the present on its grotesqueries and overlooked odd corners, instead of playing up what used to be thought of as its verities. The present, meanwhile, tends to be set out in uninflected or unrelievedly grim ways, as if all we can notice of it is that it’s there and it’s nasty; the past, with its rosy patina scrubbed off, provides handy evidence that the latter’s always been the case. As for the future, well, the phrase “don’t go there” may not be the optimal one, but “walk, don’t run” would certainly apply.
Tom Donaghy’s Boys and Girls is set among the young adults of the puzzling present; Craig Lucas and David Schulner’s This Thing of Darkness gives two college buddies, as a double-edged graduation present, a semi-centennial glimpse of their future. Both plays have a feeling, new to me in recent American playwriting, of giving and taking away at the same time. Though both are strongly written, full of lovely passages in which every word hits the right note, the ultimate effect in both cases is a little indecisive, as if something had fallen short, not in the play, but in the reality it was attempting to convey to us. It’s a feeling that has ancestors—some of Euripides’ funnier tragedies; the jocose melodramas of late Jacobean and early Caroline England; emotionally equivocal early 19th-century plays like Musset’s Fantasio and Büchner’s Leonce and Lena. Not coincidentally, they all date from times that we see now as racked by symptoms of a coming upheaval. What feels wrong in the plays turns out to be an upheaval in the society that permanently alters its way of life. The authors have simply been more than usually sensitive at picking up the symptoms.
The four characters of Boys and Girls are same-sex-preferring young urban professionals—guppies, one would say, or perhaps, in deference to the p.c. gay-and-lesbian formula, gluppies. But their same-sex preferences seem as provisional as everything else in their lives. Though they all have steady jobs—two are said to be great successes in their work, while a third boasts of practically living at his office—their domestic partnerships and housing arrangements appear to be in an eerily permanent state of flux. Workaholic Reed still pines for alcoholic, adulterous Jason, whom he’s already tossed out once and will ditch again before the evening’s over. Power-driven superlawyer Shelly loves to nurture and educate the underclass unwed mother Bev, whom she believes she’s rescued from the downward spiral of a post-Coward design for living with Reed and Jason. Does Bev feel oppressed and Jason imprisoned? Does Shelly, despite misgivings, invite Reed into their love nest as a role model for Bev’s baby? Does Reed bring Jason along, and does chaos erupt? Hey, do Catholic cardinals wear red gowns while denying that priests practice child abuse? Donaghy’s action isn’t predictable, it’s inevitable.
Which doesn’t mean it’s without surprises. Because Donaghy’s people jump and overlap and crisscross their dialogue, unexpected things come out in their talk, and notions emerge in loopy disorder instead of pat dramatic schema. The structure’s as tidy as an 18th-century opera, but the characters are loose cannons in it, forever moving in ways that throw the classical symmetry off balance. People who start out looking like winners are later revealed to be losers—and then turn out to be winners anyway; picking horses isn’t easy in a race like this. But then, a winner in this world may be a kind of loser also. We live, as the ancient Chinese curse has it, in interesting times. Identity? Don’t make me laugh. Gender identity? Save it for the theory classes—which may be the most oppressed classes of them all.
Gerald Gutierrez directed Donaghy’s play, and clearly had fun—at one or two points, maybe a little too much fun. The opening tableau, with the actors matching the shapes on the front drop, doesn’t really make an emblem to sum up the work, and the kiddie-rock songs between scenes seem all too eager to help you locate the play’s theme and gauge the irony of its treatment. And one scene contains a classic piece of director-speak: Following an epic hissy fit that’s the play’s dramatic pivot, a character starts compulsively folding and putting away props, which is about the last thing that person would be likely to do under the circumstances. It does, however, clear the stage handily so we can move on to the next scene. The four actors are all excellent. Robert Sella, who plays Reed, the dramatic focal point, is one of those actors with the magical capacity to grow gaunter and more harrowed from scene to scene; by the end you’re torn between sympathy for his plight and the desire to diagnose his case. Incidentally, I’ve heard people complain that the characters are unlikable, to which the logical response is, “Yes, but since you’ve met them all, count at least one of them among your close friends, and probably have two living next door, you can’t help being interested anyway.” In other words, Donaghy’s on to something, and I think he got it right, something he seems to accomplish with every second play: Northeast Local and The Beginning of August missed fire; Minutes From the Blue Route and this piece catch what they’re dealing with exactly.
This Thing of Darkness, in contrast, sometimes slides off its imaginative tracks. But what it’s trying to imagine—the future—is much harder than catching a sense of our weirdly indeterminate present. Nobody knows today if Earth’ll even exist 50 years from now—don’t those melting polar caps make you nervous?—and guesses like the ones Lucas and Schulner make in their play are never more than guesses, so that they don’t quite stand up even as warnings. Future-shock games are also less easy to play onstage than in film, with its F/X dazzle: The scientific shenanigans always have a jerry-built ring to them, and the temptation to pick holes in the situation increases as you go along. This Thing‘s 50-year advance look apparently includes some kind of fiery wipeout for the East Coast, despite which one character has been carefully kept in uninformed innocence, with an unabating supply of the pills that keep him alive. And his hermetically sealed residence started the play as a drafty summer cottage; its wicker couch remains placidly unchanged after half a century.
Those, however, are quibbles. The disconcerting element in This Thing of Darkness is that, though it seems to have been written to dramatize how we might face the problematic world to come, it makes sense on the human level rather than on the futuristic; if the writers had begun the action in 1950 and concluded it in the present, leaving the story as is but not inventing imaginary holocausts and telephonic implants in skulls, it would probably be just as valid and more cohesive. As things stand, the struggle to pin down the future keeps getting in the way of the relationships, sometimes actively confusing us about them. Lucas, as director, doesn’t help clarify things by stretching a gender-theory point: Since people become like their parents, we get to watch Chris Messina turn into Mary McCann who becomes Larry Keith. I prefer Oscar Wilde’s dictum that no man becomes like his mother, which is his tragedy.
Even so, there’s a lot of beauty in the writing—and, expectably with Lucas in charge, lovely performances from all six actors. While the awesome alterations in things to come are carefully left blank for our paranoias to fill in, the contradictory and unresolved nature of the relationships is just as carefully spelled out, and the two mismatched columns of figures add up to something that’s often haunting as well as unnerving. If Lucas and Schulner can’t state with assurance where we’re going to end up, it’s no fair blaming them when none of us knows exactly where we are. As with Donaghy, the value of their work is that they imagined something which catches, temporarily, the spirit of our confusion, and if art can’t help us clarify our lives (as it doesn’t seem able to, lately), the least it can do is make clear to us that we need to clarify them ourselves, and that it is getting way past the time to do so. Quick, before Caliban assaults Mamie O’Rourke.