Strawdog Theatre Company

at the Shakespeare Street Theatre

Sartre said, “Hell is other people.” Quentin Crisp put it another way: “Other people are a mistake.”

Both remarks ignore one fact, however. Even if other people are useless because, well, they’re not us, we still have to live with them. Like it or not, we’re human (and humane) only when we realize that to everybody else, we are other people. And if we deny them reality–i.e., humanity–we lessen ours, often to the point of no return. Call it what you like–“No man is an island,” or a humanist’s theory of relativity–but those who ignore this truth will never be true adults, no matter how old they are.

By that standard, the four normal people in Len Jenkin’s 1986 Obie-winning Five of Us are dangerous children, frightening just because they’re so familiar. Significantly, a sense of danger is not the first impression the playwright offers; instead his slowly scary play coaxes us into taking the characters seriously–we think we know these practical, reasonable people. The chilling result: what they end up doing implicates us, too, because of the silent sympathy we gave them.

Set in New York on a night that begins banally enough, the first half of Five of Us feels like a conventional life-style play. Mark, a failed novelist now reduced to grinding out porn pulp, is upset that Lee, his girlfriend of eight years (and sole supply of ready money), is about to set out on a yearlong anthropology expedition to Sri Lanka.

Two old friends stop by to say goodbye: Crystal, a nurse in a psychiatric hospital, and Eddie, an ex-con now training to be a mercenary. Sexist slob Eddie puts the make on Crystal and gets nowhere. The girls head off to a bar, where Crystal tries to shake Lee out of her guilt over leaving hapless Mark behind to lurch on his own from one firing to the next. Her advice: you’ve got to set your own path in life, don’t let others tie you down, etc. Alone with Mark, fast Eddie hits him with a similar pep talk: “Do something!” and “You’re scared to live”–all the usual “grab for the gusto” rationalizations for selfishness.

Mark resolves to act on this advice–and it’s at this point that the four become five. Jenkin has already introduced us to the fifth character, Mark’s next-door neighbor Herman, in a brief monologue that opens the play. Surrounded by his lumpy cot, an empty milk crate, and jumbled travel magazines, Herman is one of New York’s walking wounded, a dorky isolate who eats cat food, devours the very sex fantasies that Mark feels so dumb writing, and talks to himself (and us) in a clipped, weirdly eloquent torrent of jerky confessions. A sort of all-purpose whipping boy, Herman says his special calling is making other people look good simply by being himself. Strangely, this credo stems from Herman’s conviction that his personal Jesus offers forgiveness and His redemptive death to all the world.

A messenger for the Pony Express service, Herman is obsessed with “mental travel.” Wanting to go from moving things to moving himself, Herman happily calls up 800 numbers to make hotel bookings that he’ll never honor. Despite his dementia, however, it turns out that Herman has a shrewd sense of how he connects with Mark and Lee, these neighbors who ignore him.

Mark is convinced that his crazy neighbor must be hiding a hoard of cash. Certain that Herman isn’t home, he enlists Eddie in an impromptu burglary (which eerily recalls the equally harebrained crime in Mamet’s American Buffalo). The break-in backfires–and Five of Us quickly careens from one cruel surprise to another. Throughout this ugly unraveling, Jenkin makes you wonder just who the crazy ones are, the ones who really cut themselves off from the rest of humanity.

Corrosively painful and persuasive, Five of Us makes an audience taste just how much of the “otherness” we project onto those around us is really our own alienation twisted back on ourselves.

As directed by Lawrence Novikoff, the Strawdog Theatre Company’s inaugural production brings that truth home with a vengeance. The purposeful ordinariness of four of these portrayals plays right into Jenkin’s trap for the audience. Jim Hoffmann’s Mark is just a regular writer temporarily off his career track. Linda Martinie’s equally recognizable Lee is a career woman beset by second thoughts about leaving her man behind. Joan Rundell plays the nurse with sudden mood swings that show how little really anchors her, and Paul Engelhardt’s Eddie is your average loudmouthed, would-be soldier of fortune, able to mind everybody’s business but his own. Very 80s characters indeed.

Set against their smugness and predictability is Herman, played by Novikoff as a hybrid of Pee-wee Herman and Lotka, the impenetrable East European in Taxi. Novikoff’s methodical, serenely manic messenger feels so incongruously innocent, so unexpectedly vulnerable, that by play’s end Herman, like his blissfully imagined Jesus, carries a load of sorrows. This play sure leaves a bitter aftertaste.

Five of Us subverts, just where it seems to support, the too familiar. It pays the audience a compliment that few plays provide–it assumes we can learn from its strategically misguided perceptions, that we’ll forgive a story that stirs up the dark side and refuses to exorcise its dirty discoveries. Since real life never lets you off that easily either, Jenkin does us a big favor.