Theater archives

Notes From Underwhelmed


“What would someone say to me if they looked at my life from the outside?” Ronny asks her sister Jeannine early in Somewhere Someplace Else, Ann Marie Healy’s study of inarticulateness and longing. Ronny has come to visit Jeannine for a weekend in New York, but ends up staying for months as she tries to figure out what will make her happy. “It’s so easy to look at someone’s life from the outside and tell them what to do,” she says, but impossible to do so for oneself. Jeannine makes the same point later in a conversation with Ronny’s husband, Lance, who has flown in from Minneapolis to try to get his wife to come home to him.

As an audience, of course, we do see Ronny and Jeannine from the outside, but it’s hard to imagine what anyone might tell these pitiful characters to do to make their existence more bearable. “Get a life” is not likely to help; “Read a book” not likely to be heeded.

Mentally tongue-tied and incapable of describing their emotions without recourse to advertising jingles and pop songs, the sisters regularly burst into tears, as if frustrated that they have no access to their own inner lives. Jeannine (Laura Heisler), trying to become a free spirit in New York, has a meaningless job answering phones for a boss she refers to as a “fat cow cuntface”; Ronny (Mara Stephens), running from tedium, ends up having a brief affair with (and writing adolescent diary entries about) a guy she meets on the rooftop outside Jeannine’s window. The women coexist in Jeannine’s tiny studio apartment—a cleverly cramped box of a set (designed by David Korins) that revolves to foreground action in the narrow bed area, the bathroom, and the rooftop. While sitting practically on top of each other, the sisters remain painfully distant.

Tonally pitched somewhere between the dispassionate surveillance of Richard Maxwell’s work and the ironic sympathy of Maria Irene Fornes’s—but lacking either’s genius for scenic architecture and understated passion—Healy’s play feels empty. The excruciatingly mundane quality of the dialogue seems meant to comment on the ways the limitations of language circumscribe thought and feeling, but the work provokes too much condescension toward its characters to point to any questions beyond them. Directing for Clubbed Thumb, Annie Dorsen tries to create some productive tension by giving the performances a matte finish and making sure that wallowing is kept to a minimum. Still, she can’t create texture where the play hasn’t provided any.

Lack of texture is certainly not Robert O’Hara’s shortcoming in American Ma(u)l, mounted by Reverie Productions. His frantically ambitious play is also interested in how words can both limit and liberate, but rather than looking at two middle-class white women trying to find themselves in New York, he takes on black and white Americans trying to find—and sometimes lose—themselves in history.

Opening with slaves picking cotton on a plantation while Thomas Jefferson writes the Constitution, and ending back on the plantation in a dystopic future after the Fourteenth Amendment has been revoked, the play dashes across time and place in broad comic strokes. Even messier than O’Hara’s promising if unwieldy 1996 work, Insurrection: Holding History—in which a graduate student time-traveled with his 189-year-old great-great-grandfather to the days of the Nat Turner rebellion—American Ma(u)l draws from Shakespeare and sitcoms as it spins out a sharp satire of racial subjugation.

The African American Jeffersons live alongside the white Franklins, whose twin sons, Smith and Wesson, carry on with Juliet, the girl next door. When slavery is reinstated, Juliet’s parents make a trip to Washington to show Sally Hemmings the “true proof” that they have some “Jefferson white” in their blood, and thus are exempt from the new bondage. Juliet, meanwhile, is hoping Smith will purchase her so she won’t be sent South to an especially brutal enslavement. Smith’s parents, however, set out to burn a cross on their neighbors’ lawn and never stop spewing racist remarks. Various real and imagined characters intervene in the disjointed plot, among them a drag queen emceeing a 2 a.m. cable show and a black revolutionary professor in an electric chair who’s auctioned to the public.

O’Hara’s vision is wonderfully provocative, and he’s got an appealing sense of the grand, but American Ma(u)l is far from finished. O’Hara’s own direction of the play exaggerates its faults. The clown-show frenzy often drowns out the lines of action, and O’Hara doesn’t edit the gags that could only have seemed funny in rehearsal. (It’s bad enough that Juliet is characterized as little more than a hunted bitch—either for sex by the boys, or for labor by the slavery cops; the dildo revealed hanging off her lacy underwear when she’s discovered in flagrante with Smith is one of those cheap shots that should have been jettisoned.) O’Hara also fails to keep his energetic cast of 10 from playing perpetually over the top, losing much of his language—and much of his social critique—in shrill simplification.