Borges credited his first taste of infinite regress to a biscuit tin depicting a Japanese scene in which the same biscuit tin was reproduced. In Peter Maloney’s My Father’s Funeral—the third of four one-acts presented in Series C of Ensemble Studio Theatre’s Marathon 2002—the decedent’s son shouts in vertiginous horror when, inhabiting his father’s clown garb, he realizes the painted clown totem in his hand is itself holding a clown figure.
Though the program’s subjects range from immigration and divorce to depression and death, repetitions surface over the course of the evening. Actors strip in three of the plays; two invoke the Bard. The boy in Rogelio Martinez’s Union City, New Jersey, Where Are You? and the virginal adolescent in Graeme Gillis’s The Moon Bath Girl are questioned, point-blank, about their sexual orientation. Maloney‘s souped-up eulogy and Martinez’s Cuban litany conflate father and son in memory plays that turn into halls of mirrors. They share with the opener, Patricia Scanlon’s Hope Bloats, a confessional quality that makes them resemble heightened monologues more than shapely drama. But then Gillis breaks the pattern, eschewing his peers’ entropic narration for a heartbreaking compound of teenage lust and rue.
Hope Bloats promises perceptual rearrangement. Recent psych-ward patient Peggy (Scanlon) and her faithful companion appear comatose as the lights go up in their apartment to Blur’s sports-rock staple “Song 2”; then the music cuts out, leaving the sound of a dripping faucet. But when Peggy opens her mouth, a tiresome catalog of anxieties and antidepressants takes over. As her man says about her illness, “Sometimes I think you think it makes you special.”
In Union City, New Jersey, Where Are You?, Martinez loads the deck—actor Rosie Perez portrays a woman who’s a cancer patient, recent divorcée, and Cuban exile longing for home. The earnest, plainly written piece has a construction as ungainly as its title. The family’s son (Felix Solis) describes actions as they unfold, practically giving a play-by-play: “We sat there kind of quiet but he kept looking at me,” he notes unnecessarily, as he rides the subway with his estranged dad.
The more original if slightly strenuous My Father’s Funeral opens with Peter (playwright Maloney) welcoming audience members to the eponymous event. What follows is part family history, part meditation on Hamlet‘s Yorick, with digressions on clowns and outsider art. Refusing to go gently, Maloney’s ambitious piece spins its mortal musings into frantic, occasionally moving Grand Guignol.
Gillis’s The Moon Bath Girl is the ballad of Terry and Anna (Michael Esper and Alicia Gorenson), high school sweethearts on the outs; their reunion is complicated by the fact that Terry pines after the unattainable (and never seen) Colleen. Gillis speaks their language without condescension, using pop as a road map through the yearnings and betrayals of youth. Desperate to get Terry back, Anna serenades him with a string of unlikely singles—”Tonight’s the Night,” “Hey Mickey,” “Justify My Love”—as joke, as plea, as sexual challenge. And when she dismisses the cool crowd to which the impossibly fair Colleen belongs (“They’re like the Ku Klux Klan with crunchy hair and scrunchies”), it’s a canny echo of the famous teenage put-down, of the Socs in S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, as “white trash with Mustangs and madras.”
Gillis commits some inconsistencies, in script if not spirit: “You’re off your metaphor,” for example, while a well-turned conversation deflator, seems more drawing-room repartee than a randy 17-year-old’s dis. But under Eliza Beckwith’s attentive direction, the emotional core remains intact, and the dialogue shifts from hilarious to tender and back again with remarkable frequency and ease. The solar plexus-punching climax owes something to Pete Townshend and everything to the actors’ unforced rapport. For all its apparent breeziness, The Moon Bath Girl can knock the wind out of you.