Sweet Jane Productions

at the Theatre Building

Eight years after Goose and Tomtom had its 1978 off-Broadway premiere, David Rabe was still trying to figure out what the hell it meant. While revising the play for a production featuring Madonna and Sean Penn, Rabe told a New York Times interviewer he was “still in the process of understanding it.” And, he added, “I wrote it without understanding it. It has taken a long time to grasp.”

Well, some works of literature might take a decade or more to understand, but Goose and Tomtom ain’t the Dead Sea scrolls. The play might seem difficult to grasp because the author structured it so that it seems complex and profound, but it ultimately has very little to say. For all its philosophical bluster, Goose and Tomtom is just a confused work, striving for grand social statement but never offering anything other than banal observations about male-female relations and the human condition.

The plot of Rabe’s play is pretty simple and somewhat formulaic. In a hellish dirt hole of an apartment Goose and Tomtom, two gun-toting small-time hoods who’ve bungled a jewel heist, struggle to prove their manhood. Like overgrown children, they play endless variations on the game of cops and robbers–arguing, giggling, philosophizing, and fighting like bloodthirsty versions of Tom and Jerry.

Hopelessly terrified of women, they keep the pathetic, waiflike Lulu bound, gagged, and locked in a closet so that Goose can “take her out, pump her” and “put her back” when he’s done. Yet their moll Lorraine wields such power over them that she can make them stick pins in their arms and at one point literally reaches into Goose’s guts and makes pate out of his liver. As is usually the case in this sort of play, the games turn serious. When Lulu’s brother Bingo arrives on the scene Goose and Tomtom become convinced he’s stolen their jewels, and violence ensues.

What separates Rabe’s play from the run-of-the-mill, violent, kitchen-sink, in-your-face, rock ‘n’ roll 70s drama is its surreal structure. Attempting to graft a Godot-like existentialism onto his story, Rabe organized the play into a quirky rhythm of cycles and repetitions, with Goose and Tomtom incessantly describing and reenacting events that have already taken place. In Rabe’s peculiar underworld there’s no sense of time–day has a way of suddenly transforming itself into night–and walls that seem solid disappear as if they were mist.

The play does not progress so much as it swirls, with Goose and Tomtom clinging feebly to a reality that’s slowly turning into their worst nightmares. The audience struggles along with them. Are the characters who inhabit Goose and Tomtom’s lives real, or are they just embodiments of fears? Do Goose and Tomtom’s thoughts control their destiny, or does destiny control their thoughts? And just who are those black-clad, interplanetary commandos who break through the walls of Goose and Tomtom’s apartment?

Rabe envisions a world in which our minds create their own monsters and we’re imprisoned by our fears. Goose and Tomtom fear women because, we might assume, the sex that has given them life might just as easily take it away. Rabe suggests that this fear of female power has led men to enslave women, and that only by confronting this fear can Goose and Tomtom escape the miserable, violent world in which they live. At the close of the play, as Goose consents to untie Lulu, we come to see Goose and Tomtom not as powerful gangsters, but rather as hopelessly insignificant, scared little children searching desperately for meaning in the vast, starlit sky.

This might have been interesting if it were more than just philosophical meandering. But the work takes forever to get going and far too much of it is repetitive conversation that leads nowhere–at times Rabe is like a literary Philip Glass. Rabe seems to want Goose and Tomtom to represent Everymen, to be symbols of patriarchal society, but they’re more like a couple of jerks, and their childish behavior and misogyny quickly become tiresome. More concerned with making statements than with telling a story, the play finally loses its audience.

Sweet Jane gives Rabe’s play a bang-up, rough-and-tumble production, with excellent performances from all of the principals. But director Ellen Beckerman starts things off at such a fever pitch that there’s no place for the cast to go. The energy is impressive, and Josh Fox’s ability to leapfrog furniture without tiring is breathtaking, but such excitement can get monotonous. When Goose complained of having a headache, I was right there with him.

The talented cast still manage to occasionally work up some moments of tension, and the production looks great, especially the wonderful glow-in-the-dark scenic design by David Mehlman. They certainly seem a promising young crew, but they can’t energize a play that’s 25 percent inspiration and 75 percent masturbation.