Next Theatre Company’s Next Lab

Anger is an energy–Public Image Ltd.

Franz Xaver Kroetz is a West German playwright best known here for his aggressively unpretty “plays of ordinary life,” in which conventional working-class folk get their average teeth kicked in by the everyday horrors of capitalist culture. In one such play–Request Concert–an unremarkable woman comes home from work, eats her dinner, washes the dishes, listens to the radio, putters with a hobby, gets ready for bed, reads a bit, and then kills herself.

Fun and Nobody are American Kroetz. Kroetz crossed with David Mamet. A pair of related one-acts by Howard Korder of New York, the plays combine the fractured, lumpen jazz of a Mamet script like American Buffalo–“Where we goin’?” “I don’t know.” “OK!”–with the flat-footed sociopolitical bluntness of Request Concert Kroetz. They reimagine the capitalist kick in the teeth as administered by a culture wearing Air Jordans.

Fun is about two teenaged boys trying desperately to have some. Denny’s the brains; also, the source of the crazy, angry, quite possibly sociopathic energy that keeps things moving. Casper’s the decent but suggestible sidekick. Both are children of the urban working class, passing their days in a crummy factory town. Through a series of increasingly chaotic vignettes, the boys run from the front stoop to the overpass to the mall to a would-be drug connection where they meet Larry, the Hunter S. Thompson of industrial-tubing salesmen, who promises to get them laid but merely fucks them over.

Despite an enormous expenditure of will–not to mention a car crash, a robbery, and a major thunderstorm–the boys achieve absolutely nothing in the way of fun. In fact, fun rebuffs them so completely it’s ridiculous. Or it would be, anyway, if the boys–and Denny in particular–weren’t in such fearful pain. If the need weren’t such an awful presence within them. If its frustration didn’t suggest such dire consequences. As it is, their Big Night Out owes a lot more to Woyzeck than to Blind Date.

In Nobody we get a little insight into what makes Denny run–because Nobody is Denny’s dad, Carl. Initially an inexpressive but regular guy, Carl gets fired from his factory job and begins a slide out of the American social and psychological matrix. A slide out of his sense of who he’s supposed to be. The poor fellow just sort of hemorrhages identity.

But quietly. It starts with long days at home, watching I Dream of Jeannie and recounting the episodes to his wife when she returns from work, and runs on through an affair, a flirtation with the crackpot right, the purchase of a rifle. And it doesn’t stop there. More than anything, Nobody reminds me of Mamet’s Edmond, which recounts a similar descent. Except that where Edmond’s set up to be bourgeois and basically willing–even eager–to annihilate himself, Carl is working-class and utterly lost: once his job’s gone, the whole structure of his being follows, inevitably and without his consent. Carl is inchoate, unaware, a victim of the dialectic. Like a character out of Kroetz.

Obviously, both Fun and Nobody lend themselves to all the cliches of working-class angst. Hell, they’re consciously constructed out of those cliches. Director Dexter Bullard manages to reinvigorate Korder’s familiar gambits by leading his actors away from direct expressions of rage, playing instead on their reticence–their struggle to keep it all in. Tracy Letts as Carl manifests an eerily deadpan calm while his language grows more savage. Michael Shannon’s stunning Denny keeps his eyes moving across the floor, his screams stuck behind his scrawny ribs, as he and Joey Slotnick’s charmingly Dead End-ish Casper bounce from creaky banquette to lonely overpass, across Robert G. Smith’s appropriately tawdry, crowded set.

For all its derivative elements, the show is sharp, strong, funny, and all too easy to believe.