Immediate Theatre Company

Even though I’ve know them all my life, I still look at my parents from time to time and wonder, “Who are these people?” Or rather, “Who were they when they were busy raising me?” Sure I’ve asked them, and they’ve answered, but they’re subject to the curse of every historian–when they recount the past, they’re actually defining the present. They’re molding their memories to coincide with their current image of themselves. All I can do is infer what I will from the few shards of fact I can gather.

Since I don’t really know what my parents were like when I was a child, or what they did to me during my period of infantile amnesia, I remain free to foster the suspicion that I’m the victim of some traumatic incident that’s responsible for all my quirks and idiosyncrasies. When I was infatuated with psychoanalysis, I was convinced that everything about me would become clear if only I could remember that incident.

John Guare takes that fantasy to its logical but wacky conclusion in Bosoms and Neglect. In this bizarre black comedy, Scooper is trying to extract crucial memories from Henny, his flighty 83-year-old mother, as she recovers from a mastectomy. This is not an easy task, since Henny is not of sound mind. She has done time in a mental hospital, receiving enough electroshock therapy, by her estimation, to cause blackouts along the entire eastern seaboard. When she developed cataracts and glaucoma, she became so hysterical she resisted all treatment, and lost her eyesight.

Now, just as Scooper is about to fly off to Haiti with his best friend’s wife, Henny shows him the gaping wound in her left breast, caused by the cancer that has eaten through the skin. “She had so neglected herself that the disease was sick of not being noticed,” Scooper says. For two years, Henny treated the wound by covering it with Kotex pads and praying to Saint Jude, “the patron saint of lost causes.” Her case does seem like a lost cause, but with the help of his psychiatrist, who has good connections at a nearby hospital, Scooper manages to get his mother admitted for emergency surgery.

The psychiatrist is largely responsible for Scooper’s obsession with childhood memories. Scooper has been in analysis five days a week for six years, but won’t quit until he figures out the meaning of a peculiar recurring dream.

Besides, he is still unlucky with women, and he suspects the reason lies in his relationship with his mother. If he uncovers the right memories, maybe he’ll understand her–and himself–better. “If I can straighten things out with you, maybe I can do it with all women,” he explains.

This is especially urgent for Scooper, since the adulterous affair he has been conducting for five years is falling apart. On top of that, he has finally met Deirdre, the beautiful woman he often sees in his psychiatrist’s waiting room. He met her on the street, while killing time during his mother’s surgery. She invites him to her apartment, which is packed with rare books, many of them by neglected authors. Since they share the same psychoanalyst, they feel an immediate intimacy with each other. “I couldn’t talk to you if you were just in therapy,” Deirdre admits.

But Scooper has trouble getting the facts about her life because she lies a lot. Did her dog really die at her feet the previous night? Is she really an orphan? Was she really a nun? Does she really know Saul Bellow? Did she really try to kill a lover who was about to leave her?

Scooper can’t be sure about the most basic and trivial information about Deirdre, and his frustration brings their budding romance to a disastrous conclusion that leaves them longing for the return of their psychiatrist from vacation.

Guare makes fun of their quasi-religious faith in psychoanalysis, and he seems to relish the collision of these two intelligent, book-loving neurotics. But he doesn’t disparage the effort to make contact with one’s parents. Guare wrote this play shortly after his mother died, and his yearning to understand, to connect with that woman, seeps through the comedy. The neglected authors that Scooper and Deirdre adore are handy symbols for the troves of insight and affection that await those of us who open the book on our filial attachments.

The Immediate Theatre Company has put together an enjoyable, competent production, but it’s also a troubled production, and the troubles show. Late in rehearsals, director Mark Milliken stepped in to replace Jeff Ginsberg as Scooper. Milliken delivers his lines confidently, but his performance is slightly tentative, as though he hasn’t had time to develop the little personality tics that would reveal his character’s psyche.

This tentative quality weakens the performances of the other two cast members, primarily because they don’t have a strong, clearly defined character to bounce their lines off of. Lynda Foxman portrays Deirdre as a bundle of contradictory traits. She seems intelligent but spaced out, perceptive but vacuous, strong but wimpy, deep but shallow. Like the stories Deirdre tells, these traits can’t all be true, and her character becomes blurred and pale.

Judy O’Malley, on the other hand, brings lots of specific detail to her portrayal of Henny. Her groans of pain, her New York accent, her sarcasm–all these traits are vivid and sharp. But her relationship to Scooper, which, after all, lies at the heart of the play, remains vague and detached.

Such detachment is the antithesis of good ensemble acting, and Guare’s plays seem to demand exceptional ensemble effort. The revival of The House of Blue Leaves in New York was a success largely because of the inventive, complimentary performances of Steppenwolf’s John Mahoney, who played a zookeeper trying to become a songwriter, and Swoosie Kurtz as his demented wife Bananas. Her madness seemed linked to his ambition, while his ridiculous self-absorption seemed to be both a cause and a reflection of her madness. The performances were connected, and brought cohesiveness to a plot that seems wildly fragmented and arbitrary.

Guare is something of a neglected author himself, and that’s understandable. His brand of humor is tough to realize on stage, and unless the actors have an instinctive sense of what’s funny about the characters, Guare’s plays can seem awfully chaotic.

The Immediate’s Bosoms and Neglect delivers most of the laugh lines effectively, but the really dark humor, rooted in the interactions among the characters, remains locked up because their relations to each other aren’t clearly defined. Like my parents, these characters left me wondering who they really are, and such ambiguity is likely to keep Guare’s work neglected for a long time.