Privy Party

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:19

    Privy Party Do You Come Here Often?, an extended comic sketch about two men stuck in a bathroom together for 25 years, may just be that perfect collision of comedy and surreality that Beckett looked for in his collaboration with Keaton, and that Ionesco simply wished for. Having said that, I flash back to a performance from the early 1980s called The Regard of Flight, in which the marvelous "new vaudevillian" Bill Irwin broke out of his clownish mime routine to tell a clown critic chasing him with a 6-foot pencil that his show contained no "Beckettian symbology." So, okay, maybe it's premature to lay such thick critical praise on the British duo The Right Size (Sean Foley and Hamish McColl), which is appearing in the U.S. for the first time. There's a spark of brilliance in this work, though, a distinct flash of something much more substantial and deliberate than the sketch-comedy antics on which it trades. McColl and Foley are, respectively, David Seymore and Kevin Kevin (whose "secret middle name" is Kevin), a badly mismatched pair who find themselves bound and gagged in a bathroom, apparently kidnapped. Or perhaps they aren't kidnapped, since as soon as we meet them they start singing through precut slits in their mouth-tape ("Stuck in a bathroom... If only we could talk") and separating their limbs to show the binding knots are phony ("If only we could walk"). The room, we are told, has no door, which seems an acceptable premise since the set is on a linoleum rectangle without any walls, but a prop door is soon produced, employed for slapstick clobbering and then used in so many other absurd ways that all logical notions of entrapment become irrelevant. A key, for instance, is delicately fished out of the door lock with a wire, even though nothing prevents the men from reaching down and grasping it. At one point, Kevin lies face down on the floor beside the door and "runs" as if moving through it, down a corridor and into a brick wall, which is nothing compared with his later feat of "climbing a rope" made of toilet paper (also along the floor) as if scaling a tower.

    As time goes by, they occupy themselves with various dumb or wrongly played games, which only add to their annoyance at what they think is their utter incompatibility. David, who was taken (or whatever) from a wedding where he was supposed to give a clever best man's speech, is dressed in a shabby tux and claims to have lived a life of banquets, caviar and "pretty much endless yachting." Bumbling Kevin, by contrast, who had just gone to the corner store for a pint of milk and an egg (and a brief, ineffectual flirt with a certain Mrs. Spicer), wears casual clothes over pajamas and sums up his life with the remark, "I tend to watch a lot of television."

    They're really as much peas in a pod as any of the vaudevillesque duos they're based on, though. Half the time they mix up, or forget to wear, the ludicrous strap-on beards that are meant to mark the passage of time. One tries to fashion a glider out of the bath mat, and the other spends six weeks (then later 10 years) sulking in the shower ("Honestly, David, I can't turn my back for a decade, can I?"). One makes bad puns ("We need nutrition." "What's wrong with the old trition?"), and the other repeatedly complains, "I can't believe you're still doing that sort of material." David writes a book about their plight (produced from his pocket as a professionally printed paperback, entitled Why Me?) and Kevin keeps a torn-out page from it (containing a knockout punch to David's jaw) in his pocket for "emergency use."

    There's no need to go on. These are two first-rate comics capable of pleasing on any level one wishes; my 7-year-old son Oliver accompanied me and had a fabulous time. McColl is the ferrety, bug-eyed, luminously manic, contagiously nervous one, and Foley is his balding, dowdy, furrow-browed, hedgehoggish counterpart. The dead-on precision of their seemingly careless blend of mime and pseudo-mime, comic danger and comic innocuousness, is what gives the piece its wonderfully silly texture. And the continual uncertainty over how much of their plight comes from "dark outside forces" and how much from themselves is the source of the fascinating frantic melancholy that underlies the silliness. This melancholy is what steers the viewer's mind to major plays like The Bald Soprano, Waiting for Godot and Acts without Words (whose famous teasing from the wings is deliberately evoked near the end), and though I wouldn't spend too much time on detailed comparisons at this point, I'd go out of my way to see what The Right Size does next.

    The Winds of God by Masayuki Imai American Place Theater, 111 W. 46th St. (betw. 6th & 7th Aves.), 239-6200, through 10/31. It takes a special sort of chutzpah to bring a Japanese play sympathetic to kamikaze pilots to the United States. Actually, such a play would probably be risky today even in Japan. It's true that more than half a century has passed since anyone was killed by an exploding Zero driven by a suicidally brainwashed kid convinced his emperor was God, but the average American is likely to have even more trouble identifying with such a kid than most of us did with the supposedly heroic Nazi officers in Sam Peckinpah's film Cross of Iron (1977). And the average Japanese (I'm told) tends to find this whole subject distasteful, associating it with militaristic excess, blinkered right-wing nationalism and shame. All of which is reason to admire Masayuki Imai's The Winds of God, I suppose, whose title is a literal translation of the word "kamikaze." The plan of this 10-year-old play, written and directed by one of the actors who stars in it, is as bold and brave as its execution is shallow and compromised.

    The Winds of God comes to American Place Theater with something of a diplomatic splash after three successful tours of Japan, a performance in Los Angeles in 1992, a workshop at the Actors Studio in 1993, a performance at the United Nations in 1995 and a brief run at the Judith Anderson Theater last June. In a letter published in the program, the Consul General of Japan praises Imai for humorously conveying "the unavoidable horrors of war" (!) and states that Winds is "the first play to be produced and performed by a Japanese cast on Broadway." Actually, American Place is an Off-Broadway house and this production is playing under the expected O-B contract. The way it uses popular comedic forms to pretend to probe a serious matter more deeply than it does is squarely in the Broadway tradition, though. With touching naivete, Imai writes in his own note: "Broadway, to us Japanese, is a dream. It is the only place in the world where theater truly prospers."

    The play is built around an absurd premise that grows solemn about halfway through. A pair of happy-go-lucky but inept comedians, Aniki (Imai) and Kinta (Risu Matsumoto), are killed in a motorcycle accident in 1999 and brought back to life as kamikaze pilots in 1945. The other pilots in their squad think they are lieutenants Kishida and Fukumoto, who miraculously survived their suicide missions and are now suffering from amnesia. To begin with, they are the same wisecracking scoffers they always were (their memories of 1999 are intact), but gradually, as they are drawn into the grave and fateful wartime atmosphere, they learn to respect the discipline and dedication of the squad members, become more and more like Kishida and Fukumoto (even finding at one point that they know how to fly a Zero) and eventually request to fly missions themselves.

    Imai's purpose as a playwright is obviously to juxtapose the commodified triviality of a supposedly typical 1990s youth consciousness (the comics' inane jokes are full of references to fast-food chains and Hollywood movies) with the super-serious youth of 50 years earlier?a laudable enough ambition, if only he had something to say about it other than banal saws about taking peace for granted. Imai revels in the role of Aniki, maximizing the character's know-nothing smarminess in a way that he clearly expects the audience to laugh at more than it does, but the truth is, neither Aniki nor Kinta are given anything substantial to say about 1999 or 1945. According to the program, their comedy routines are variations on a traditional Japanese form called "manzai," which I know nothing about, but I feel sure most Westerners would agree that, as presented here, it is suspiciously like a deadly variation on a trusty vaudeville or standup duo (like The Right Size), with overdone gags and jokes hammered into the ground that weren't funny the first time.

    Anyway, why did this story require inept comics? I kept wondering. Why not at least occasionally perceptive ones? It's dully obtuse, for instance, that Aniki and Kinta don't understand that news of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs will depress the other pilots, or that their mocking caricature of a Japanese tourist will be offensive. More important, I couldn't tell what I was supposed to take away from the comics' ostensibly momentous decision to fly suicide missions, other than that they had transferred their herd instincts from idiotic consumerism to senselessly self-sacrificial militarism, supported by a vague notion (drawn from one of the other pilots' theories of reincarnation) that death in 1945 might return them to 1999. Perhaps?I shudder to think it?the magnificent special effects of the flying scenes were meant as justifications in their own right.

    All these conceptual problems aside, though, the biggest rent in the production is that most of the Japanese cast is way out of their depth with the English script they have memorized (translated by Yoko Florence Yunokawa). With one or two occasional exceptions, their pronunciation, stresses and phrasings are too shaky to communicate any subtleties or meaning or emotion, which all but ensures that the sense of missed cultural signals that pervades the play will be insurmountable in performance.