Next Theatre Company

For certain people, the slightest nudge can produce a play. While Maria Irene Fornes was visiting New York’s Abingdon Square, she saw a woman holding a rent receipt. The playwright imagined that the woman was about to go home to her husband, a man she pictured as much older. What if he sees this slip of paper, thinks his wife is keeping lodgings for a lover, and throws her out? That melodramatic morsel was the source of this taut and bristling play.

Abingdon Square (1984) is made up of 31 lean blackout scenes. Fornes’s terse vignettes–some as cryptic as a character walking across the stage–span the suffragette years between 1908 and 1917, and trace the almost inevitable failure of a May-December marriage.

Resembling a fusion of Anna Karenina, The School for Wives, and The War of the Roses, Fornes’s domestic potboiler is original only in form–intriguingly incomplete slivers of life that precisely trace this marriage’s unraveling. But Abingdon Square is more than an exercise in minimalist technique. Fornes’s snapshot style and her stiffly uncertain dialogue perfectly complement characters we see only from the outside, who hardly see themselves, let alone each other, and whose long speeches are transparent attempts to convince themselves they know what they feel. In Fornes’s modern melodrama, lovers always undermine their hopes; they feel their own needs so intensely that they can’t see that the beloved, the soul they think will always supply those needs, remains a stranger.

Marion, a religious girl to whom guilt comes effortlessly, has just lost her parents–but her new, 50-year-old husband, Juster, is old enough to be one. She weds him out of gratitude; he marries her knowing he doesn’t deserve her and that she chose him while dazed with grief. But preferring comfort and regularity over truth, Juster puts away these doubts and contents himself with instructing Marion in her obligations. (His, of course, are never mentioned.)

Believing herself “drowning in vagueness,” despising her “weakness, numbness, and lack of character,” Marion is a tabula rasa; sex is the instrument we expect will mark her. Her only contemporaries and confidants are her stepbrother Michael and her cousin Mary, whom she titillates with scandalous tales of bohemian love and excerpts from her erotic but imaginary diary.

Marion yearns to make the diary come true. A quick sexual encounter with a glazier may not be romantic, but it provides Juster with a son. Further pursuing her ideal, Marion trails after a handsome young man she insists on calling Frank, after her diary’s main fantasy; he returns her interest, saying–but not meaning–“I’m chained to you.” What follows is predictable.

What’s not predictable is how evenhandedly Fornes spins out her story: she refuses to judge her characters. After Juster kicks Marion out, she succumbs to feelings of impurity and of an “evil destiny” and to her fear of never seeing her child. Meanwhile Juster is eaten raw with the justified paranoia of knowing he’s hated. But even when separate, Marion and Juster hate and miss each other equally; an eleventh-hour misfortune holds out the hope of a reconciliation between them–or is it just imagined?

This play could easily have dwindled into a feminist tract against lecherous old men acquiring naive young women through marriage. But Abingdon Square is never that polemical. Instead the play works subliminally, through wry touches, as in Juster’s unwitting arousal of Marion: helping Michael with his lessons, Juster describes the pollination of a flower. The play also works overtly: given the drawn-out repression of Marion’s sexual feelings, her awakening is inevitably violent. Yet no one’s egregiously to blame for the foundering of this marriage. For Juster it was natural to want to make her loveliness his own, and to think he could make her happy–it was wrong, but it was never evil.

Whenever Eric Simonson directs Next Theatre (he also directed The Normal Heart and Knuckle), he strikes gold. True to form, he serves Fornes’s less-is-more strategies very well. Even if what happens here feels awesomely familiar, it always matters. Of course the script never incites us to choose sides: Fornes lets us judge these flawed fellow humans with the rare compassion of honest theater.

Simonson’s staging also suggests the audience’s distance. Dark with burnished wood, Robert G. Smith’s set transforms the stage into a three-dimensional canvas actually enclosed by a giant wooden frame; but the floor is so alarmingly raked that this painting seems about to spill its subjects into the house. Linked and set off by Larry Hart’s well-chosen musical bridges, the hit-and-run scenes are meticulously labeled with slide projections that precede each scene and detail its month, year, and location. This specificity assumes that emotions can be nailed down as accurately as the era is by Patricia Hart’s fashion-plate costumes.

There’s nothing distancing about these powerhouse performances or the hothouse climate Simonson creates for Fornes’s smoldering souls. Jack McLaughlin-Gray’s Juster seems at first the stereotypically repressed Edwardian gentleman, but the instant he sees that rent receipt he flies into a stunning, suicidal-homicidal rage, releasing an unhinged fury that’s clearly fed by his knowledge of how little he’s earned Marion or her love.

Johanna McKay plays Marion’s quirky credulity as if it’s rooted in the marrow of her bones. (Marion may turn into a chain-smoking flapper a bit abruptly, but blame that on Fornes’s haste.) Jeffrey Dudek decisively underlines the massive indecision of Marion’s stepbrother, a boy who knows what she’s up to but is too cowardly to take sides.

Marjie Rynearson as Marion’s too-reticent aunt is equally helpless; as Marion’s cousin, Barb Prescott says all that’s necessary through her shocked silence. Playing yet another character who can’t follow through on his feelings, Kevin Theis as Frank is a Romeo afflicted with the curse of second thoughts.

Fornes has a dark, impressive talent; few playwrights could have unleashed this much pain from a rent receipt.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Gail Specht.