“I can think straight,” says the hero of Maria Irene Fornes’s enchanting 1968 play Molly’s Dream. “I just don’t want to.”
It’s unlikely that, in the days before Stonewall and the flowering of the women’s liberation movement, this line would have paraded its double meanings as obviously as it does now. But as powerfully as 35 years ago, today Molly’s Dream delivers a revealing critique—and celebration—of hetero romance. Over the last several decades, the play has been presented in workshops, regional theaters, and colleges all over the country, but has never before had a full professional production in New York. In bringing this little gem into the light at Soho Rep, director Daniel Aukin has offered the city the perfect springtime gift, inviting our fancies to turn to thoughts (and fears) of love.
The frame of the play appears simple: Molly, a waiter in a bar, arrives at work, begins to set things up for the night, thumbs through a magazine, catches a glimpse of a man who pokes his head through the door, and dozes off. At the end, the man comes in, has a drink and leaves before Molly awakes. In the meantime, Molly’s subconscious comes to life in a complex and charming enactment of sexual attraction, rejection, posing, fulfillment, and disappointment. The man of Molly’s dreams, it turns out, does not live up to the phrase.
When the man, Jim (Dominic Bogart), enters the dreamscape, he is surrounded by five “Hanging Women” who literally cling to him adoringly. What can he do? As he declares in a song (lyrics by Fornes, the new, pleasantly bluesy tunes by Maury Loeb), “I accept, I accept, I accept the responsibility of my enormous sex appeal.” Molly is irresistibly drawn to him, but wants to be the sole object of his affection. Jim doesn’t want to hurt the feelings of the other women—a sentiment that compels the bartender, Mack, to declare Jim a “sissy” and break into his own song about his ability to “take on a hundred.” Played hilariously by Matthew Maher, Mack seems to search deeply for the expressions that will fully articulate his passions, but the song has a single word, repeated dozens of times: “Bang.”
Yet a third exemplar of masculinity arrives in the form of John (Patrick Boll), a cowboy with half-a-dozen pistols. And then a fourth—a female masculinity—when Molly (Bo Corre), rebuffed, transmogrifies into Marlene Dietrich, donning a top hat and stretching out languorously on the bar. (“You made me become German,” she tells Jim, as if that’s the most ordinary result of love going unrequited.) The guises of traditional femininity are exposed, too, especially when Alberta (Toi Perkins) joins the party, tap-dancing like a girlish Shirley Temple, though she’s 27. John falls for her totally, and as they court each other in a dance of cat-and-mouse, the Hanging Women sing, in glorious harmony, “Is this true passion/Or the way a vain man has/Of saying to himself: /I am not dead?”
Set designer Louisa Thompson has turned Soho Rep sideways, changing it from a deep and narrow space to a long and shallow one. She has built a saloon, with a full wooden bar along one wall, replete with dusty mirror and stairway to the basement beneath a trap door. The band—piano, fiddle, and guitar—is revealed to be playing in the bar’s bathroom when Molly swings open the stage-left wall and finds them jamming beneath grimy tiles and a paper-towel dispenser.
As director, Aukin finds Fornes’s all-important balance of whimsy and world-weariness and, thankfully, does not let the actors camp it up. Still, with the exception of Maher, the leads seem tentative, as if unsure of how to enter fully into these emphatically non-psychologized characters. Only the chorus of Hanging Women can really sing. Nonetheless, Molly’s Dream is so quintessentially and pleasurably theatrical that such weaknesses don’t end up mattering much. One can’t help falling, like a kid in ecstatic love, for Fornes’s wise and witty take on the pretenses, self-display, and confounded identities of romance—and of the stage.
Satirist Douglas Carter Beane seems to want to evoke similar affections for human foibles in Mondo Drama, a series of slight sketches sending up the “shockumentaries” of the ’60s, efforts that sought to display “bizarre” cultural practices from around the world. Some pre-show film clips feature topless go-go dancers on an American beach; African shamans being pierced with long blades; and white men doing the tango together.
The three performers—Caroline Rhea, Siobhán Mahoney, and Miriam Shor—are as pleasant as can be in their range of characters: straight women masquerading as drag queens because that’s the only way to attract straight men these days; an upper-class lady adopting a Mexican child and boasting about her bountifulness as the child starves at her feet; African women discussing spells and concoctions for getting pregnant; and so on. The jokes have less bite and originality than the TV variety shows of the late ’60s. In sum: Mondo Boring.