“Everybody leaves home,” says Stammy (Seth Clayton), a bewildered and disappointed young man, near the end of Heartbreak, Ariel Stess’s new play. He’s right, of course. And that’s one of the reasons it’s so curious — and frustrating — to watch the newest crop of American playwrights take stabs at domestic drama. Sure, each generation brings something new to the timeworn living-room play, which has been around for at least a century. Why shouldn’t writers in their twenties show how they experience familial disconnection in a decaying social fabric, just as previous generations did?
On the other hand, it’s dismaying that theater’s emerging talents so reliably and consistently return to household dramas — even when they hope to upend conventions.
Heartbreak, produced by New Georges and the Bushwick Starr, suffers a double whammy, pledging allegiance to familiar themes while aspiring to rigid experimental form. Twangy cowboy songs in the soundtrack tell us we’re somewhere in the American Southwest. The set — a big house in the desert — also looks like a building site, with only a sink, a counter, and a bench. But most of the time it doesn’t matter exactly where we are, because scenes float amid the dislocated, semi-aphasic speech patterns of characters who all talk the same way.
The scenario goes something like this: Steven (Richard Toth) and Stell (Mary Rasmussen) welcome home their impetuous daughter Stara (Keilly McQuail), who wants to speak with her father about a “heartbreak” but must contend with his distracted state of mind. He speaks of “phasing out” — retiring, but also, apparently, a change in his capacity to live and communicate. Eventually Mell, Brell, and Kell (Seth Clayton, Paul Ketchum, and Noel Joseph Allain), an interchangeable trio of associates from “the company,” arrive for what may or may not be a dinner party. Soon the play turns into a sour hallucination of Dr. Seuss: A guest brings a dying dog in a sack. The future of the adjacent forest and a business deal get mentioned. Not much food is eaten. Not by Mell. Not by Brell. Not by Kell.
The dialogue starts as bone-dry as the New Mexico desert but later rises into the clouds. Stess plays throughout with repetition, rhyme, and accidental speech, especially word slips that can either have more than one meaning or mean nothing at all. But with all the characters meandering linguistically, the play quickly feels bloated and garrulous. “I’m getting all wasted on voices,” says Stell when all the guests have arrived. That feeling’s contagious. For me the tipping point came during a repetitive disquisition about wet paper towels, when I started to question why this surfeit of words gathers so little charge on stage.
One answer is that this drama’s unmoored to narrative but confined to domestic subjects. Heartbreak makes a big change from I’m Pretty Fucked Up, Stess’s livelier show in Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks series last year. In that play, fast jumps between loopy narratives felt like a television script about lost but winsome slacker teens. Here Stess, who also directs the production, settles for a mostly inert staging that gives us little to hold on to. The experiment is admirable, though — and as with all heartbreak, it’s good to focus on what the future may bring.