MARTIN AND JOHN, at Cafe Voltaire. Dale Peck’s 1993 debut novel is an easy book to give up on. Though there’s a pretense of experimentalism, Martin and John is actually a series of short stories, every other one in italics, narrated by a series of Johns in love with a series of Martins, with a few parents named Beatrice and Henry thrown in for good measure. While the circumstances of the stories are widely divergent–in one John is a 16-year-old farm boy literally rolling in the hay with a young drifter, in another a kept dilettante–in style and tone they’re so similar that the stories quickly meld into an indistinguishable blob. Peck’s unfailingly elegant prose continually promises more than it delivers, and he nibbles around the edges of some weighty emotional issues but rarely takes a satisfying bite. After 221 pages the “real” John announces that all the preceding are fictionalized accounts of his life meant to ease the pain of his lover Martin’s death. Now that the one bit of information that might tie the stories together has been revealed the reader can either plow through the book again or, like me, throw it across the room.

Actor Sean O’Neil has selected 10 of Peck’s 17 stories and performs them with the aid of only a bed, a chair, a few simple props, and a well-toned body, which he feels compelled to display at every conceivable opportunity. O’Neil tries to enliven Peck’s prose with character voices, poignant silences, and a handful of languorous squirms on the bed (for which a “movement consultant” is credited), but because he never finds an honest connection to his material he ends up stranded in a showcase of his own design.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzanne N. Plunkett.