Tight and Shiny

at Cafe Voltaire

Wallace Shawn sure has a taste for unlikable characters. In Aunt Dan and Lemon he gave us a pair of cryptofascists: Aunt Dan, who believes in state-sponsored terrorism, and her protege, Lemon, who finds the Nazis’ lack of compassion “refreshing.” In My Dinner With Andre Shawn presented us with a pair of mollycoddled sons of the haute bourgeoisie who consume an exquisite and expensive meal while discussing whether theater should awaken people to the harshness of life or allow them to sleep still more deeply.

Yet somehow Shawn manages to make these awful characters compelling. Even Lemon, for all her protofascist beliefs, wins our sympathy. Nowhere is Shawn’s gift for making unlikable characters likable more apparent than in Marie and Bruce, first produced in 1979, a year before the play version of My Dinner With Andre opened.

In this work Shawn presents two nasty, brutish characters, Bruce and Marie, who spend the whole play showing us, and everyone else they chance to meet, just how desperately unhappy they are with each other. They’re not unlike George and Martha in Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but unlike that couple, Shawn’s Bruce and Marie have no terrible family secret to keep hidden.

Nor does Shawn play that old realist trick of taking two acts to fully reveal the extent of his couple’s unhappiness. From the word go, we learn in no uncertain terms just how miserable Marie is. “Let me tell you something,” Marie tells the audience at the top of the show. “I find my husband so goddamned irritating that I’m planning to leave him.” As for Bruce–well, Bruce is a little harder to read. His reactions to Marie’s invectives (“You goddamned fucking son of a bitch, you pig, you shit, you turd”) are so mild, so understated at first (“Now, darling, is this really . . . “) that his lines would be funny if Marie weren’t so full of fury.

Later on in the play, when they’re at a party, Bruce and Marie switch roles. After a few drinks Bruce becomes the sadist, Marie the victim. He tortures her, loudly hectoring her in public about their awful sex life, complaining that she “can be sort of a cunt” for refusing his advances. The once verbally aggressive Marie can only squeak, “I hear you, Bruce–.” Then Bruce cuts her off with that quintessentially 70s excuse for any social faux pas: “Well, of course I’m being an asshole–I know that, darling . . . that’s just my way.” Later on Bruce twists the knife a bit more, describing in detail the incredible sex he had once with a woman across the room. Marie just sits and takes it.

At no point does either party in this sick relationship seem capable of pulling free. Which is, I suppose, the point of Shawn’s incredibly pessimistic play. Somewhere, in the middle of all the shouting and torture and pain, Marie and Bruce, like George and Martha, are utterly and neurotically dependent on each other.

So what, you may ask, makes this nasty, essentially plotless one-act so compelling? In part, I suppose, it’s just plain thrilling to see two vicious characters light into each other. But another part of the fascination has to do with this Tight and Shiny production. As Shawn himself admitted in a 1980 New York Times interview, unless the play is “acted truthfully, the whole thing will just be garbage.” Timothy Sullens’s direction of Marie and Bruce is nothing if not truthful. His work is most assured during the long, largely comic send-up of New York cocktail parties in the middle of the play, and less so in the more serious scenes at the play’s beginning (in Marie and Bruce’s apartment) and end (in a restaurant). Seeing how well Sullens brought Shawn’s party-montage to life–done, I should add, without the benefit of stage directions, for the script doesn’t have any–one wonders what comic magic Sullens might be able to conjure given a pure comedy, one that doesn’t abruptly turn vicious and nihilistic.

Certainly Sullens’s cast negotiate the play’s tricky emotional terrain with the finesse and timing of good comic actors. Cari Coffman shines in her few minutes onstage as confused party girl Bettina, winning laughs with her character’s odd theory that it’s “possible for people just to sometimes not feel what they actually do feel.”

Sadly, getting laughs is less important in this show than showing how god-awful Marie and Bruce’s relationship has become. Happily, Karen F. Woditsch and David Wagner are equal to the task. Woditsch gets Marie right down to the bone. Even the potential kink in the role of Marie–the odd way that she allows herself to be verbally abused in public, though in private she’s the aggressive one–seems, in Woditsch’s capable hands, more like a quirk than a contradiction in her character.

Wagner, who is much taller, more handsome, and less nebbishy than Bob Balaban, who played Bruce off-Broadway in 1980, nevertheless seems right at home. He may not be the “little man” Marie accuses him of being, but Wagner’s overly solicitous passive-aggressive portrayal makes Bruce seem just the kind of shit who thinks he’s being sensitive and charming when he’s humiliating his wife in public.

Though they never reach the histrionic levels of Liz and Dick playing George and Martha, Wagner and Woditsch succeed in making Marie and Bruce both complex and understandable–utterly fascinating and utterly unlikable.