At the Playwrights’ Center

There is a particular sort of man who refuses to have his dog or cat neutered because he gets a vicarious thrill from the thought that his animal is behaving in an amoral manner. Though by no means restricted to men, this practice does seem to be found most frequently in males who feel that their heritage as warrior-savages has been compromised by civilization. They use their pet’s sexual behavior as some gang-bangers use the aggressive behavior of their pit bulls.

Man–that’s a character’s name in Castrating Eugene is such a person. He caroms noisily off the furniture while watching football games on television, plays catch with raw steak, and has the disturbing habit of donning his camo fatigues late at night and restaging what may or may not be his own Vietnam war experiences. Woman, his mate, is all kind and gentle nurturance. She enjoys playing Jane to his Tarzan but is uneasy about being cast as the VC whore in the war games–of course Man insists that they are only games.

The buffer between these two individuals polarized by gender is their dog, Eugene. Eugene shares in Man’s edge-of-violence roughhousing, but both owners begin to notice that their pet becomes extremely aggressive after such bouts, at one point actually mounting Woman and frightening her so much that even Man must seriously consider checking these tendencies. Commentary is provided on the viability of castration–no euphemisms like “fixed” or “altered” in this play–by the prudish Miss Havisham, who sings the praises of her five effeminate pooches and kicks Eugene in the crotch when he responds too enthusiastically to her teasing, by the leather-clad Dr. Geldman, who advocates castration as the final and only solution, and by the pope, who declares that being fruitful and multiplying is God’s way. But it is only when Eugene rebels against Man’s brutality and becomes Woman’s protector that his fate is assured.

Is the naive Eugene a symbol of supposedly inherent male aggression? Is Eugene the human psyche, with the superego ultimately tempering the libido? Is he the postfeminist male finally learning the meaning of rape? Or the postfeminist male doomed to impotence by those ball-busting bitches? Playwright Trish Suchy’s assignment of sex roles is simplistic: she does not recognize a female sex drive, and Woman shows an unmitigated helplessness, both physical and psychological, in the face of what is presented as the male horomonal imperative. Instead Woman calls alternately on each male to rescue her from the other–indeed, the parallel between Man and Eugene is heightened by Woman’s patting and kissing them both in an identical manner.

Castrating Eugene has several low-comedy touches, not least of them the casting of a human actor as Eugene. It is much to the credit of Dexter Bullard that he manages to be doglike without ever resorting to cute mannerisms or losing his–well, his humanity. Mary Agnes Draland Doyle brings a subtle restraint to Dr. Geldman and the pope that gives some validity to their arguments. (Her Miss Havisham seems to have wandered in from Greater Tuna.) As the caricatures Man and Woman, Arthur Aulisi and Adrienne Alitowski acquit themselves well, with a chilling accuracy. We’ve seen these people, probably number a few of them among our acquaintances, might even be them–and that’s a scary thought.

I’d like to think that there are other ways to be nonaggressive than by giving up one’s cojones. Bully or eunuch isn’t much of a choice. But by dispensing with socio-babble polemics and going for the big archetypal approach, Suchy has crafted a succinct–if ambiguous–piece, ambitious in its scope and in its exploration of human behavior. This is one you’ll think about for a long time.

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