Real Work

at Cafe Voltaire


at the Playwrights’ Center

Ostensibly Neil Labute’s Bash is a young couple’s remembrance of a much-cherished trip to New York City for a bash at the Plaza. But even as Sue and John recall the most innocuous details of the weekend, a growing tension warns us that the title must have a second meaning: we stay tuned for 45 minutes in part to learn what violent twist their story will take. Our interest would be simply dull voyeurism, however, if Labute’s imagery didn’t so vividly take us places we’ve been before and to others we never want to visit.

As the two Boston College socialites, Mark Rector and Elyse Mirto play an excellent game of dueling monologues, replaying the same story from different vantage points. Both smile broadly as they recall their anticipation of a “great” night and a time when they were head-over-heels romantic. But as their juxtaposed lines reveal, “romantic” doesn’t necessarily mean deep love or kinship. Sue smirks as she recalls the impression she made in her black taffeta dress that weekend. John’s eyes glaze over with adoration as he remembers the dress too–as black rayon. It isn’t just that he doesn’t remember the material but that perhaps he doesn’t know Sue either. Does he realize, for instance, that when they first met, Sue flirted with him even though she knew her boyfriend was due at any time, in essence setting him up for a fight? Does he know about the guy Sue dated while he was away one summer?

And how well does Sue know John? She knows he’s good-looking in a tuxedo, he thinks driving down to New York with his buddies and their dates is fantastic, and he marvels that “the best-looking girl” will be on his arm. From his description of the weekend he’s a closet poet, stunned by the images of the men’s tuxedos “hanging from all corners of the Isuzu” and the women already dressed in their evening gowns at a truck stop: “chiffon–miles of it down the snack aisle.” Likely Sue realizes all this about her boyfriend, but she will never know that the night before she “got the ring” John was leading his friends in a deadly assault in Central Park.

As John, Rector doesn’t need to make a transition from sensitive frat rat of the 90s to homophobic beast because the beast is always there. John is appropriately creepy throughout, as he gushes about “the light bouncing off the hood of the car” and “the light reflecting off the water”; his upper-class confidence is linked to his indignation and to his rage. And though at the time of the “bash” Sue was napping back at the hotel, she seems an accomplice to John’s brutality. Mirto’s Sue shares, perhaps surpasses, John’s hedonism; always seeking beauty and pleasure, she easily looks away from or forgets what is unseemly. As she describes falling asleep with the two other women on a king-size bed, she luxuriates in herself as the picture of innocence.

The scariest part of Labute’s indictment is that no one is innocent.

Upon moving into a carriage-house apartment–her landlady’s childhood playhouse–divorcee Joanie is awakened in the middle of the night by the old woman, Clarissa, and her nephew Al, who is fixing a burst pipe in the main house. Joanie, on the rebound from her marriage to a cool corporate lawyer, at first finds the handyman repulsive but inevitably sees beneath his gruff exterior. “Your eyes are like a little lost puppy dog’s,” she says the next afternoon. He responds warmly, “That’s what I am inside.”

John Fritz’s The Playhouse, premiering at the Playwrights’ Center, is a study in cliches and contrived story lines. Though it attempts to examine romantic relationships, this story about a woman rebelling against her proper upbringing and do-gooder instincts succeeds only at being cute and, at times, mildly irritating. With unbelievable perkiness, Joanie accepts her fate: to lose her husband Robert to another woman and to study nursing, the career Robert wants to finance to assuage his guilt. Ignoring the obvious fact that she’s been screwed, Joanie reasons, “People are just people and can’t be blamed for what happens.” Enter Al. After having sex with him Joanie is talking back to Robert and her parents and dropping out of school. But she’s not a complete cynic yet–she’s only changed the object of her optimism to Al, though they have nothing in common (he is almost 20 years older, lives in a trailer, avoids working, and likes beer and ice fishing).

Eventually Fritz makes it clear that he doesn’t intend this romance to represent true commitment and understanding between partners. Joanie ends the relationship, explaining to Al that it wasn’t real. “It’s this playhouse,” she says. “We were playing at life.” But doesn’t she continue to play at life when she dramatically packs her suitcase and heads for the bus station and parts unknown? I have a feeling that Joanie would take that playhouse mentality with her no matter where she went.

Unfortunately this production, directed by Fred Kuhr, often emphasizes the ridiculousness of Fritz’s scenarios. The affectedly quaint set (designed by Jim Cicero) is decorated with a doll, a rocking horse, and other toys: it’s hardly likely that an elderly woman would keep ancient playthings in a room she’s been renting out for years. Clarissa is equally affected as played by Susan Skolfield, an obviously young woman hamming it up with false gray hair, frumpy housecoats, and a whiny, tremulous voice. Skolfield overdoes the decrepit bit, walking bent over and moaning extraordinarily with the strain of lifting a couch cushion.

Michael Karberg, also playing older than he is, tries to approximate the toughness of the 44-year-old Al with a forced gruffness. Becky Roberts oozes flat sweetness as Joanie, the energetic, kindhearted fool. In the opening scene she tosses a stuffed animal in the air, looking fascinated by something that would surely bore a child. However, Karberg and Roberts do gradually develop a nearly genuine rapport as the opposites that attract; they’re responsible for a fair share of the play’s cute moments.

By contrast, Maggie Kelly establishes a unique, moving character in an incredibly brief time. As Al’s spurned lover–a crass, burly woman who looks more like a man–Kelly stirs greater sympathy than any of the lead characters. It’s a credit to her ability and an indication of the play’s weakness that the best thing comes onstage and goes off in ten minutes, well into the second act.