CONTORTIONS and JUDGEMENT, Atlas Theatre Company, at the Athenaeum Theatre. In fashion-hungry America it would be easy to dismiss playwright Bill Lederer as outdated–when in fact he’s advancing the tradition of 20th-century European absurdism. Mixing the metatheatricality of Pirandello, the domestic banality of Ionesco, the hysterical menace of Artaud, and the antibourgeois delusions of Witkiewicz in these two one-acts, he dispenses with character, plot, cause and effect, and even psychological identification in favor of raging, lyrical psychosis.
This approach doesn’t always work. Judgement, a brooding portrait of an alcoholic derelict haunted by an accusatory alter ego, gets too caught up in cliched angst to have much impact. But in Contortions–an imploded family tragedy about everything and nothing–the cumulative effect of Lederer’s nonsensical jags is astonishing. On opening night director Frank Merle’s four cast members took a good half hour to fall together in this hour-long piece, but from the first moments Lederer’s literate, hallucinogenic imagery burrowed its way into the unconscious. And by the time the play ended, Lederer had manipulated logic and linearity so successfully that I no longer wondered why the father figure transforms from Ben Franklin into the Mad Hatter into a harlequin, nor why his pregnant daughter dies only to wake and breast-feed from her indifferent mother. I was merely left delighted and disturbed, for reasons that may surface in weeks to come.