Ed Avery, hero of Nicholas Ray’s film Bigger Than Life (1956), has a rare medical condition that only cortisone can treat. There’s just one little catch: Too much cortisone makes you psychotic. The movie follows Ed’s psychological disintegration, as he morphs from genial suburban dad into Old Testament–obsessed madman.
Daniel Fish’s elegant stage version condenses this tale of conformity and dementia into a succinct two-hander—with an outlandishly un-succinct title: Tom Ryan Thinks He’s James Mason Starring in a Movie by Nicholas Ray in Which a Man’s Illness Provides an Escape From the Pain, Pressure and Loneliness of Trying to Be the Ultimate American Father, Only to Drive Him Further Into the More Thrilling Though Possibly Lonelier Roles of Addict and Misunderstood Visionary.
Christina Rouner and Thomas Jay Ryan expertly play all the roles, leaping abruptly between scenes and erupting from unnerving calm into manic fury. They slump against a slanting gray wall (designed by Peter Ksander), which implies both a film set and a hospital room; rolling lights create “close-ups” or throw distorted shadows behind them. Fish musters memorable images: a hilariously mechanical sex scene, a spilled milk episode worth crying over.
As Ryan and Rouner gabble their way through Bigger Than Life’s dialogue, it’s like watching two lunatics tell a story of descent into insanity. When Ed’s madness finally overtakes the stage, Fish’s spare vision only makes the plunge more profound—transporting us from the delusions of 1950s Americana into the depths of a deranged mind.