I couldn’t help it. All through David Marshall Grant’s Pen, despite some solid writing and some terrific acting, I kept thinking of the Nichols and May sketch. You know the one—it’s on their Improvisations to Music LP—the parody of all those Freudian-era plays about psychosomatically crippled rich women regaining the use of their legs thanks to the warmly paternal shrink usually played with a thick Viennese accent, who makes them relive their repressed childhood trauma. Kim Stanley wowed Broadway with the legit version of this myth (Henry Denker’s A Far Country) in 1961; the Nichols and May burlesque ends with the patient, having revealed her guilty secret, saddling herself with a still more crippling psychosomatosis. And evil old cynic that I am, when J. Smith-Cameron, as the divorced wife in Pen who’s been wheelchair-bound since her marriage went on the rocks, magically regained the use of her legs, I kept waiting and waiting for her to come out with May’s punchline to the skit, which I’m not going to ruin by quoting here.
Fortunately, David Marshall Grant, aside from being a fine actor, is an honest and serious-minded writer, clearly not as jaded as I (is anyone as jaded as I?), who wouldn’t stoop to such a facile joke, least of all one borrowed from a sketch by somebody else. He means his heroine’s paraplegia, the exact medical diagnosis of which is only vaguely touched on in the script, to stand for a spiritual condition that is in some ways crippling and in others oddly admirable, which is her utter, absolute, rigidly unyielding faith in the rightness of her view of things. Stuck in her wheelchair, stuck in her liberal disgust (the year is 1969) at a world that has Nixon’s escalating war in Vietnam on one side and hippie dropouts on the other, she has irrecoverably lost a husband she still insists on loving, and is about to lose the college-age son she’s busily scheming to keep at home as long as possible. Being in a wheelchair impairs her activity about as much as platoons advancing on a farming village are impaired by being stuck in their tanks; only a fool would get in her way.
Smith-Cameron plays this monster of determination with a gray, hard-mouthed look and a knife-sharp tone of voice that may make you, like me, look twice at the program to make sure there isn’t another actress in the show. We are as far away as one can imagine from the saucer-eyed champagne girl who bubbled and fizzed her sparkling way through As Bees in Honey Drown and Fuddy Meers. Helen, her character here, is a woman in overdrive and always in command, but without an ounce of sparkle—the kind of woman whose ex-husband could understandably suggest “Hell” as a suitable nickname for her. Smith-Cameron’s ability to give herself over to this unflinchingly, always playing from the character’s strength, and never trying to mitigate her unpleasantness, is dazzling. It’s a salutary reminder, to our typecasting time, of what the word range means in acting, and of how technique— another much abused term—can seemingly transform an actor’s appearance from within. The list of roles in which I want to see Smith-Cameron has suddenly gotten much longer.
In spite of which, I couldn’t keep that comedy sketch out of my head as I watched. Grant’s play is a lucid, sharply etched map of altogether familiar territory: Easygoing Jerry (Reed Birney), now hooked up with a younger woman, wants his and Helen’s son, Matt (Dan McCabe), to go to his alma mater in California; Helen wants him close at hand. Matt, dizzied by this emotional beanbag toss, finds hostile ways of acting out toward both of the warring parties, including a spell of shoplifting. Into this bitter impasse, which you know from the start is going to linger in all three characters’ minds no matter what happens, Grant injects a stroke of magic realism: a miracle cure, fuzzily explained (and even more fuzzily staged in Will Frears’s somewhat slapdash production), that temporarily gives Helen back the use of her legs. That this isn’t a joke but a sort of moral metaphor, meant to lift the play out of conventional suburban banality into some transcendent world of larger meanings, doesn’t help. In this everyday context, the miracle only looks like a patch of glitter appliqué from some now campy piece of late-’60s chic. The basic material’s still the same dowdy material, albeit well cut and hand-stitched, and the glitter’s turning flaky. Grant nearly atones for his gimmick by following it with the play’s best scene, in which Helen, revisiting the couple’s old haunts, nearly succumbs to the temptation of sex with her ex, but the damage has been done: Even a cubist dramaturge couldn’t sort out the tangle of realities with which Pen concludes. The pity is that it strands three fine performers. Birney subtly makes the father a complex figure, deceitful but troubled and disturbingly engaging. McCabe’s son, understandably a little muted next to two such powerhouses, nonetheless holds his strongly centered ground. And Smith-Cameron, as aforesaid, can make simple realism so magical that you wonder why anyone would bother with the flimflam kind.