at Stage Left Theatre
Terrence McNally’s early plays may have been abrasive, with their sledgehammer satire and “fuck authority and the establishment” attitudes, but at least there was no mistaking the author’s sentiments. The two one-act plays that together comprise Bad Habits, performed by Prairie del’ Arte, give us enough information to follow the action moment by moment, but there’s no through line to give them direction. As my father used to say, “We get the joke, but what’s the point?”
The first one-act, “Ravenswood,” is named after the setting: a plush sanitarium for couples with relationship problems. The cornerstone of Dr. Joyce Pepper’s treatment is total permissiveness–she reasons that when people are encouraged to do whatever they want, they will discover how to make themselves happy and will stop making other people unhappy. Her patients include old-money patricians like Hiram and Francis, a gay couple who continually squabble and make up; Roy and April, stars of stage and screen whose voracious egos sometimes breed competition but who still support each other; and Harry, who has made another attempt at murdering his wife, Dolly. Dolly at first refuses to share his therapy, denying that she has also made attempts on Harry’s life and might, like him, need some counseling. Dr. Joyce’s prescription for Harry is a regimen of limitless alcohol, cigarettes, sex, and recreational and self-expressive activities. Puzzled by this therapeutic approach, Dolly consents to spend some time in Ravenswood herself, for the sake of her marriage.
“Dunelawn,” the second one-act, is about a sterile asylum where the oracular Dr. Toynbee is revered as a saint by his two nurses–the klutzy Becky and the no-nonsense Ruth–as well as by his patients: Mrs. Ponce, who calls for a variety of alcoholic beverages in a slurring voice; Mr. Blum, a former cross-dresser; and Mr. Yamadoro, an Italian gentleman from Jersey who imagines himself to be a sadistic Japanese general. The inmates are kept heavily sedated at all times, lest they flaunt their “imperfections.” Apparently they’ve been sedated for so long that, when threatened with expulsion from the institution, they plead to continue their confinement, injections, and the doctor’s whispering of secret comforts.
Then a new patient arrives, who turns out to be the lover who jilted Nurse Ruth long ago and for whom she has made herself into the paragon she is now. The dissolute Hugh not only confounds the doctor with counter-esoterica but confesses to Ruth that her current perfection makes her as unlovable as her previous imperfection had–a paradox that throws Ruth into confusion. Meanwhile the Neanderthal orderly, Bruno, has taken action on his lewd harassment of Nurse Becky. She frees the patients, hoping they will protect her, but they stand by passively as she’s ravished. Following that, however, Becky announces her intention to marry her attacker, claiming “He loves me the way I am. Nobody’s perfect.”
What is McNally’s point? Not that self-fulfillment is the key to harmony, for Harry manipulates Dr. Joyce’s precepts to his own advantage. Not that human imperfections are desirable–Bruno, Hugh, and the other “bad examples” in “Dunelawn” are no less grotesque and unattractive than their draconian guards. Do Becky’s and Ruth’s fates indicate that self-improvement is futile? That trying to please a man will lead to insanity? That rape is the first step in marital accord? Is the lesson of “Ravenswood” that money and selfishness equal happiness?
Compounding the confusion are the Nazi motifs strewn through both plays. When Ruth defines Dunelawn’s goal–turning out “perfect people”–we are supposed to hear echoes of Hitler’s master race, but the concept of the patients/prisoners being brainwashed into identifying with their wardens is a bit harder to grasp, as is the notion of the slimy Bruno as “liberator.” And what does it mean that the benevolent Dr. Joyce is confined to a wheelchair, a la Dr. Strangelove, and that her chief attendant is played as a stereotypical SS robot? And how do the other patrons of Ravenswood fit into the metaphor?
Mark Landis appears to have tried to disguise McNally’s fuzzy themes by directing his cast to play in a broad, hyperemotional manner immediately recognizable to fans of Mel Brooks–or Chuck Jones, for that matter, the creator of Daffy Duck and the Roadrunner. Like these men at their most self-indulgent, these plays offer cartoonish characterizations–racist, sexist, and homophobic–and a shrill delivery (which often obliterates the text) that grow ever more boring with no context to give them meaning. The Prairie del’Arte company includes many fine actors–in particular the stately Anna Weiner, who minuets in Dr. Joyce’s wheelchair so daintily that it came as a shock to see her walk unaided as Nurse Ruth. I can’t wait to see what the ensemble can do with a less muddleheaded script.