Somewhere along the line we must have collectively decided that misery is interesting onstage. We must have agreed that a play’s dramatic appeal can be measured in sobs and shrieks and that protagonists grow more complex with each new misfortune that befalls them.
Can we take that back now?
Suffering has always been crucial to theater’s emotional power. But British playwright Philip Ridley’s two recent one-act monologues, Tonight With Donny Stixx and Dark Vanilla Jungle — now receiving their New York premieres in rotating rep at Here — trade in something darker and more cynical: psychological wretchedness. The abjection fueling these companion plays often feels grimmer than blood and guts would be, though not necessarily in the way Ridley seems to intend.
A contemporary of Sarah Kane and inaugural force behind the early-Nineties cohort of “in yer face” Brit playwrights, Ridley’s got a long history of staging the horrifying, depraved, and gruesome. (He’s also a prolific, multitalented creator who has written novels, screenplays, children’s books, and poetry, in addition to making music and visual art.) But where Kane’s plays — and all the best works from that theatrical moment — used cruelty to shed light on society’s deepest hypocrisies, Ridley’s recent work seems uncomfortably interested in trauma for its own sake.
Both pieces star unreliable narrators who desperately want things they’ll never have and descend deep into delusion to attain them. In Tonight With Donny Stixx, Donny (Harry Farmer) is an amateur magician with grandiose dreams. He addresses us directly — both shows do — using us as therapists, confessors, and live studio audience at once. Don’t we want to hear about his best performance ever? As he tells us, his real story emerges —family tragedy, mental illness — in spasms of convulsive ranting. The gulf between Donny’s self-perception and his life’s grim reality (he does card tricks at kids’ birthday parties) is so clearly enormous that by the time he lashes out in a final, violent act, the turn of events provides little plot revelation and less emotional insight.
Then there’s Andrea (Robyn Kerr) of Dark Vanilla Jungle, whose ambitions are more generic but, per Ridley’s grim logic, equally out of reach: All she wants is a stable home and a caring family. Abandoned and abused by the people she trusts most, Andrea constructs a fictional family from near-strangers, spinning an increasingly wild fantasy life around people she barely knows.
These twin tales of misery unfold on a single set: grim linoleum floors in an institutional shade of gray, backed by a bank of lights that illuminates in abstract patterns reflecting the speakers’ moods. Farmer commits to the sweaty, manic role, creating a believably sad and scary Donny. Kerr is less sure of herself as Andrea, but then Andrea’s less sure of herself, too.
In both pieces, Ridley seems to want contemporary social horrors — mass shootings, online bullying, sexual assault — to register both as political commentary and as ingredients in a dark, strange world of imagination. But Tonight With Donny Stixx and Dark Vanilla Jungle are too insistently literal to conjure much fantasy, and wallowing in the messed-up psychology of individual sad sacks is the cheapest, least insightful way to reckon with these real-life problems. Andrea and Donny are objects of macabre humor, flailing and suffering for our uneasy amusement — it’s just not all that amusing.
Tonight With Donny Stixx
Dark Vanilla Jungle
Here Arts Center
145 Sixth Avenue