The playwright Mac Wellman makes word worlds — he toys with language and essentially lets it go where it wants to go. A self-described “damnable scribbler” and tickler of fancies, he has written more than forty plays, and is a beloved teacher of playwriting at Brooklyn College, where his students have included Annie Baker, Thomas Bradshaw, and Young Jean Lee. One of his exercises with his students is having them write a “bad” play. Since young writers are always trying their best, why not learn early on what their worst might be like?
A Chronicle of the Madness of Small Worlds, currently on view as part of New York Theatre Workshop’s “Next Door” series, adapts two linked short stories from a collection of prose that Wellman published in 2008. It was conceived for the stage and directed by Elena Araoz, who has chosen to set Wellman’s wordplay against a cushioning swell of live music that threatens, at strategic points, to overtake his language.
Act One, called “Wu World Woo,” and Act Two, called “Horrocks (and Toutatis too),” are set in two small and intermingling worlds in the asteroid belt. Wellman wrote these stories in the ’90s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, and lighting designer Justin Townsend has provided some red lights hanging from the ceiling in the first act to subliminally suggest this.
Timothy Siragusa delivers Wellman’s text in the first act; Anastasia Olowin follows suit in the second. Siragusa mainly stands at a vintage microphone and tells a grotesque yet somehow familiar story that takes place in a land of vast coldness and horror. He describes smashing his father with a rock over and over again, then pivots to talking about how his brother killed their mother and took his own life. He takes out his brother’s suicide note from his pocket, but he doesn’t read it until late in the monologue. Everyone in his world appears to bear the name Mary Carnivorous Rabbit, which Siragusa repeats so frequently that he was finally able to ask the audience to say it for him. His face, voice, and body language throughout express a kind of antic desperation.
Olowin’s monologue has a much different mood. She is dressed in a white gown, and stays, for the most part, seated. The woman she plays can seem very prim and lofty and guarded, making it jolting when she sometimes speaks a little crudely — as when she remarks, of the climate, “You could freeze your tits off!” She describes being a tall “dandelion” of a female who is always being chased by “brutish” short boys who throw rocks at her. Her name is Pollen, which she dislikes because she feels it limits her, as all names do. (She even maintains that a name she chose for herself — let alone one chosen by her parents — would limit her.) Pollen was born near a place called Stopped Cold, which really does practically say it all.
Language twists and turns sharply in A Chronicle of the Madness of Small Worlds. Sometimes, Wellman leads us down dead ends with it, but always to a purpose. Though he loves words, he is never arch or precious with them. He is both playful and deadly serious, and he illuminates his chosen theme here by never addressing it directly. What Wellman is expressing in this pair of monologues is the bewilderment of two people given freedom when all they have known is limits — an idea he makes touching precisely because he has so few limits himself.