Signature Theater, 555 W. 42nd St. (betw. 10th & 11th Aves.), 244-7529, through Oct.10.
Splattered Despite an impressive career nearly four decades long in the American theater and a reputation among serious critics scarcely short of reverence, the Cuban-born playwright Maria Irene Fornes remains relatively unknown to theatergoers in her adopted country. She belongs to that large but distinguished company of dramatists who have built extraordinarily important bodies of work but are nevertheless rarely revived by our major Off-Broadway and regional theaters, addicted as they generally are to a monotonous diet of trusty standards and "fresh faces" from yesterday's headlines. This is precisely the sort of neglect that Signature Theater, which devotes each season to a single living playwright, is uniquely suited to redress. Unfortunately, the first offering of Signature's all-Fornes season is a checkered affair whose main production is so badly misconceived it runs the risk of turning people off to her work.
Happy matters first. Drowning, the three-scene, 15-minute sketch that follows Mud, is a quiet, enigmatic treat that takes some of the edge off the evening's disappointment. Written in 1986 and based so loosely on a Chekhov story of the same title that the original content is unrecognizable, Drowning presents three grotesquely rotund and oleaginous creatures whose "heads are large and shapeless, like potatoes," speaking together in what may be a cafe, about seemingly trivial matters that point to fundamental questions about what it means to be human. All are neatly dressed in vaguely 19th-century style, which is funny in itself given that they look like mutant sea cows (or melting chocolate frostees), but the more they talk the more the spectator's laughter of superiority sticks in the throat. This is Fornes' deceptively puckish side, which took the form of realistic absurdism at times in the 1960s but, just this once, is that of an easygoing surreal symbolism that looks silly until one recognizes the rigor behind it.
Directed by David Esbjornson, the production takes place as if in a thick, invisible ooze, with the dispensing of verbal and visual information carefully paced to produce a series of subtle surprises. The designer Teresa Snider-Stein, for instance, has conceived the characters' marvelously bulbous heads in a way that allows the actors considerable facial freedom, which they exercise sparingly and shrewdly, inviting minute inspection of every clumsily graceful expression. The story, too, is full of deliberate conundrums, beginning with Pea (Marc Damon Johnson), the youngest, who spies a newspaper and exclaims, "My God, what is it?... It is beautiful... This must be made by a person," implying that he and the others are not "persons." Soon after, he asks Roe (Philip Goodwin) what he is "made of" and is told, "human flesh."
What lends gravity to this bizarre encounter is the heartbreak that "good" and "kind" Pea suffers at the hands of a "woman" (presumably human, though we never see what she looks like) whose picture he sees in the paper. His report of her cruel rebuff ("You rub me like a piece of meat. You are a piece of meat") elicits the most humane compassion from Roe and Stephen (Jed Diamond), which helps drive home the suggestion that the grotesque makeup has been a trope of magnification?the human animal reduced to sweaty, oily flesh, uplifted only by the experience of "drowning" in its unavoidable basic drives. This is remarkably close to the sort of cosmic absurdity Chekhov had in mind when he called his plays comedies.
Lovely as Drowning is, though, Esbjornson turns out to be astonishingly unattuned to the squalid reality of the brilliant 1983 one-act Mud, one of Fornes' most beautifully allegorical pieces. Two of this play's three roles are so poorly cast that the show often feels like an early rehearsal. The celebrated Beckettian cadences and rhythms in Fornes' language?which stresses simple, declarative sentences and usually acquires stunning lucidity in performance?are quashed or muddled by overweening emotionality. And her wonderfully ambiguous exterior-interior setting, originally conceived as "a wooden room that sits on an earth promontory"?a place simultaneously claustrophobic and pregnant with the prospect of freedom?loses its mystery entirely in Christine Jones' cramped design: a plain wooden floor surrounded by dirt with a few pieces of shabby furniture in front of a crumbling back wall pushed up close to the audience, and a sky-blue backdrop behind that with no visible promontory.
Mud tells the story of the catastrophic attempt of Mae, a bright but illiterate young woman, to free herself from the sinkhole of poverty and ignorance she has occupied since childhood with a slow and primitively crude young man named Lloyd. By learning to read and allowing a kind and literate middle-aged man named Henry to displace Lloyd in her bed and affections, Mae is briefly filled with wonder and light, believing she has glimpsed a previously unimaginable horizon. Mae possesses a certain native eloquence to begin with, but she doesn't recognize its value because her words are squandered in petty bickering with Lloyd. (She nags him to see a doctor, because he suffers from a disease that makes him foul-smelling and impotent.) Mae: "What do you do when you open your eyes. I work, jerk. You're a pig. You'll die like a pig in the mud. You'll rot there in the mud. No one will bury you. Your skin will bloat. In the mud. Then, it will get blue like rotten meat and it will bloat even more. And you will get so rotten that the dogs will puke when they come near you."
Henry is first brought in to read a medical pamphlet too complicated for Mae and quickly becomes a live-in mate who provides her with occasional feelings of elation and elevation. She worries, however, that she can't retain many of the new words and facts she's learning, and at one point, after Henry describes the throwaway culture of the future, she says, "I don't think I'll be wanted in such a world." In a final twist, no less chilling for being a bit schematic, Lloyd buys medicine with money stolen from Henry and returns to health, while Henry is disabled in a fall and turns into a childish invalid who expects abject servility from Mae. There are many ways to read this spare, heartbreaking tale?as a feminist allegory, a humanist allegory, and even an allegory of language. As in Peter Handke's early masterpiece Kaspar, Fornes uses a sparse environment to highlight and frame the acquisition of social speech by an adult, associating the quintessentially human ability to name things with liberating playfulness and then puncturing that vaguely noble image with an adulterated reality.
Regardless how one interprets the action, however, which isn't wholly realistic, there's no question that, in production, it has to rest on more stable, realistic underpinnings than this production provides. Neither Deirdre O'Connell's Mae nor Paul Lazar's Lloyd, for instance, comes off for one second as believably poor or illiterate, and Esbjornson leaves the impression that such considerations were irrelevant to his concept of the piece. These "poor people" look like the movie versions of Appalachian hillbillies we saw in Coal Miner's Daughter, with O'Connell's squeaky clean, flaming red hair bouncing about in an ostentatiously unkempt tousle that suggests a lot of vitamins and protein in her diet. Her locution and movements are incongruously worldly and confident (holding Lloyd's nose and rubbing his neck like a cat to get him to swallow a pill, for instance), and her pronunciation errors while practicing reading aloud are downright preposterous ("call-ed," "snay-yells," "becau-zee") for anyone as securely articulate as she has been when not reading.
O'Connell at least has a few scenes in which her overconfidence contributes to Mae's glow of pleasure in learning. Lazar, on the other hand, is at odds with his role from beginning to end, substituting indicated petulance for fear and ineptitude and inane antics for the crucial sense of pathetic powerlessness he can't produce. Only the estimable John Seitz as Henry delivers a performance solidly rooted in plausible behavior, but since he has no one to pick up his cues he remains a bell without a striker. Perhaps Esbjornson thought the seamier aspects of Fornes' play were in bad taste and in need of esthetic remedy (even the eight-second freezes between scenes that she calls for, simulating still photographs in a family album, are deemphasized in dim blue light, as if the director felt ashamed of or equivocal about them). In that case, he should've given the project over to someone else. At any rate, let us hope the remaining shows in the Fornes season are entrusted to more sympathetic hands.
Sundays Out of Country by Judy Elkan
Ontological Theater at St. Mark's, 131 E. 10th St. (2nd Ave.), 420-1916, through Oct. 17.
For the first five minutes of Judy Elkan's Sundays Out of Country, I thought I might be in for a special evening. The set is an elegantly cramped space even more compelling than the one used for her undisciplined but memorably strange Playstation, Levels 1-4 last summer: a back wall and floor draped in a narrow swath of two different Victoriana upholsteries, with an elegant liquor cart and several cheap chairs covered in exactly the same upholstery pattern?the ultra-ordinary made drolly formal. As the preshow music fades?softly played screams of a heavy-metal vocalist?a genial young man enters (Arthur Nelson Capone) wearing an odd dark shirt with a collar sewn into the belly, and proceeds to photograph his own shoes in various whimsical configurations.
So much for the fruitfully eccentric in this tediously drawn-out 90-minute piece, though. The rest of Sundays Out of Country consists of a gathering in the upholstered space of four actors and a director, who swill absinthe with sugar cubes and never get drunk, while engaging in various dull exercises, mind games, flirtations, scene-rehearsals and gossipy chitchat whose purpose is neither explained nor given any interesting nonrealistic contexts. With the occasional exception of Capone and Susan Tierney, the acting is deadly dull, the action encompasses long passages from Ibsen, Schnitzler and others that come to seem as gratuitous as the silly costumes, and the whole show is practically sagging with lugubrious inertia by the end. I still root for Elkan's strange visions, but this misbegotten show just has too few.