Bailiwick Repertory


Playwrights’ Center

“I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.” –Dwight D. Eisenhower

Peace lovers have always known how to attack warmongers: contrast the hawks’ glittering generalities with pictures of real battlefield carnage, then ask which persuades more, the abstraction or the suffering?, The problem is that this frontal assault relies on a shock treatment that wears off fast. English playwright Ronald Holman’s oblique approach is better: try to undermine whatever mystique war still retains by writing around the subject, showing its less blatant but more enduring evils, its secret poisons rather than its quick kills, and above all its stupid waste. For Holman, the worst of war is revealed in what it makes people do to themselves and to others. To show this he creates an emotional minimalism–understatement that’s the opposite of war’s excess.

Receiving an intense midwest premiere in this Bailiwick Repertory staging by David Zak, Making Noise Quietly consists of three one-acts performed in the intimacy of a black-box stage. They’re told from the perspective of assorted victims who meet and learn from each other. Holman may expect these slices of life to affirm and reinforce each other, but his scene making is too uneven to present a solid front. The strength of these one-acts lies in their specifics rather than in any interrelated theme; each play proves its worth mainly through its accidental moments of truth.

“Being Friends” is straightforward and disarming. Two men, misfits for different reasons, meet in a Kentish field near the end of World War II. Eric Faber (James Marsters) is a gay artist and novelist with a fractured spine and tuberculosis. Oliver Bell (Andrew Scott) is a Quaker and a conscientious objector who has tended the wounded in a burn ward.

The men present each other with fascinating new perspectives: Oliver is impressed by how unashamedly Eric wears his homosexuality. Eric listens to Oliver as he tells of being spat upon and ostracized for his pacifism, and describes the death of a tortured German POW that haunts him. Eric’s refuge from war is in what art allows him to do, namely to “look closely at one thing” until it becomes its own center of the universe. Oliver seeks love and work as refuge; he envies Eric for having found both. A sudden bombardment brings these secret sharers closer. Finally they hold hands, shed their clothes, and soak naked in the sun–two odd men out who find a common cause in having nothing to kill for.

Though Zak tightly confines the action to a narrow upstage rectangle, the acting is as natural and unforced as Holman’s ambling dialogue; this casual meeting never loses its eavesdropping charm. Marsters looks much healthier than his character, but that’s no big problem because our last impression should be of Eric’s resilience. Scott’s Oliver has all the decency of a man who needs to justify–or abandon–the pacifist credo he’s suffered from.

Set in rural England in June of 1982, “Lost”, depicts an encounter between May (Sally Marold), a mother who hasn’t heard from her son Ian in five years, and Geoffrey Church (Marsters), a young sailor who tells her Ian died in action during the Falklands war. Confronted with this ugly finality, May lashes out at her headstrong son who always had his way even when it brought his death. Though too late to matter, a second discovery brutally brings her up to date: four years before, Ian married Geoffrey’s sister. Embarrassed, May realizes she’s spilled her anger to a member of the family.

Trying to stanch these new wounds, May retracts her earlier cynicism about the sordid Falklands war; she worried that no one would remember the soldiers who died in it. Suddenly imitating Mrs. Miniver, she tells herself that Ian died for a good cause–but her patriotism is a hollow consolation at best. May does find enough strength to sympathize with her son’s widow.

Trojan Women minus the majesty of mourning, “Lost” is the least focused of the three plays. In addition the acting isn’t always anchored in the characters’ reality. Marsters offers steady support as a sort of stand-in son, but Marold drops her energy to suggest her grief, making May seem more distracted than disturbed by her loss. This passivity is reinforced by Zak’s rigid restriction of the playing area and the actors’ movements, and by Tom Fleming’s sepulchral lighting.

Set in August of 1986, “Making Noise Quietly” is more developed than the other two plays, yet exasperatingly incomplete. Helene Ensslin (Marold), a rich Bavarian businesswoman, befriends Alan Todd (Scott), an AWOL English soldier, and Sam (Jedediah Cohen), his autistic stepson. A survivor of the death camps, Helene knows how easily the cycle of violence is perpetuated–and sees it when Alan hits his stepson for stealing her belongings.

Sam’s response to his stepfather’s violence, and to the punishment his hard mother gave him for his bedwetting, is to stop talking; he communicates by writing on his arm. This resistance only worsens the stepfather’s mean streak, a trait the playwright rather tenuously connects to Alan’s self-hatred and the violence he learned in the Falklands. Helene believes that to help others you have to take the risk of being wrong and getting hurt. Trying to reach Sam, she offers him the things he tried to steal, but only if he will say thank you. At first her bullying torments Sam more than his father’s slaps, but it finally leads to a sort of breakthrough for him–and for Alan, who in time might learn to forgive himself for directing his anger at Sam.

Though intermittently intense, “Making Noise Quietly” confuses more often than it intrigues. It’s never clear, for instance, how the survival lesson Helene learned in the camps explains her treatment of Sam, or what traumas make Alan so able to abuse. Holman mistakes symbolic acts for cures and in the process loses track of his antiwar theme.

The acting does a lot to fill in the gaps. Marold (though she has to learn not to pull in during her heavy moments and to hold on harder to her German accent) gives us a Helene as willing to learn as to teach. Scott strongly conveys the swaggering weakness that Alan takes for strength. Finally, nervously shaking or shrieking, 12-year-old Cohen does an amazing job of showing Sam’s torment. Sam should be classed among the latest casualties of the Falkland folly; he proves there’s no statute of limitations for war’s stupidity.

Just when you were afraid the word offensive had lost all meaning, along comes a revolting commodity like Eat the Jung to give the term new power. A black comedy that outgrosses even John Waters’s films, Billy Bermingham’s new play nonetheless has a redeeming quality: in triggering the gag reflex, it reminds us what good taste really is. This show is strictly for bottom feeders.

Yet for all its putrid, sophomoric, misogynistic, homophobic, and racist overkill, Eat proves itself more often than not a scummy delight. Like Christopher Durang’s The Nature and Purpose of the Universe (an equally vicious anti-Catholic send-up that, compared to this offense, seems gentle), Eat focuses on an elaborately suffering mother who is surrounded by a dangerous family. Subject to regular fainting spells and Valium binges, Mom Smith is a nonstop martyr. No wonder. Dad is a foul-mouthed, alcoholic pedophile; daughter Susan is a bulimic, pregnant whore who’d have an abortion except that she wants to sell the kid for $50,000 “provided it’s white”; son Jerry is gay but thinks he’s a black lesbian (and puts on blackface to prove it); and younger son Arthur is a mean punk and doper with a menacing mohawk and a pea brain who shakes down Mom for $100 in lunch money. They regularly curse, kick, and slap Mom, who takes it all–even the cocaine in the cookie jar–with saintly forbearance. What a gal!

But not for long. After a randy priest bursts in to force Mom’s confession and takes dirty pictures up her dress (for a magazine I dare not name), after the father hires his daughter as a sexual surrogate, after Jerry develops three diseases at once, and after Arthur gets kicked out of the third school in a month (for eviscerating a teacher), it becomes a bit too much. Mom sells her soul to the devil–and gets in return the suburban dream family she always wanted. Of course they turn out to be a plastic Republican nightmare, and Mom’s back where she started.

Too proud to know shame, Bermingham pulls no punches in depicting two radically opposed but equally extreme antifamilies, and William Bullion’s staging carries it out with a vengeance. Rampaging around Monica Bullion’s skewed kitchen set, the eight shameless Playwrights’ Center actors create their own scumbag city. Setting a Guinness record for long-distance masochism, Mark King’s dour Mom is a hilarious doormat, and Patrick Murphy’s father definitely knows worst. The rest of the performances in this frat show are as twisted as the set.