Blind Parrot Productions

at CrossCurrents


Northlight Theatre

The difference between a perfectly decent person and a monster is just a few thoughts. –Wallace Shawn, from “The Appendix to Aunt Dan & Lemon.”

You trust waiters not to spit in your soup. You trust a friend not to tell your secrets. You trust a lover not to break your heart. That’s how we get along, at least insofar as we actually do get along. We assume what we must and hope others are willing to share our assumptions. It’s the social contract on a small scale. A basic assertion of decency . . . or of our faith in decency, anyway.

Of course nobody, not even Edwin Meese, can compel people to be decent. Lovers do break hearts, friends tell secrets, and waiters have been known to modify a recipe or two. All we’ve really got, after all, is each other’s word–and in a time when prominent folks like Ivan Boesky, Oliver North, and Ronald Reagan seem to feel a Nietzschean privilege with regard to the truth, what’s anybody’s word worth? Morality’s nothing more than a commonly held premise, and a premise, as Wally Shawn knows, is only a few thoughts.

Martin Epstein’s obviously interested in the tenuousness of decency, the ease with which any one of us can abrogate the little social contracts that make life more secure. His absurd one-act comedies, Three Variations on the Theme of Pain and Mysteries of the Bridal Night, derive what momentum they have from one character’s willingness–or compulsion–to betray another’s trust. And to do it before witnesses, if possible.

In Pain, we watch as a sour, pretentious professional student named Susie Lowenstein delivers a talk on the qualities of discomfort, and illustrates it by humiliating her two hapless assistants; in Mysteries, a brand-new bride and groom cope with a supernatural crisis by going for each other’s throats. Both scripts offer reconciliations, assertions of faith. But at the center of each is the unsettling spectacle of rugs being pulled out from under various sets of feet.

And Epstein’s not content merely to trip up his characters. He’s out to floor his audience, as well. Pain’s full fit to bust with conceits calculated to disconcert us. To subvert our assumptions and even betray our trust. Speeches are directed out at us; characters emerge unexpectedly from among us; a “studio staff” remains visible to us through the entire piece, intervening occasionally, like a clumsy bunch of Kabuki koken, in the action onstage. Mysteries finds similarly disorienting effects in the absurd presence of a coffin, fitted with a bell that rings out cryptic messages for the newlyweds. Neither play respects conventional notions of motivation: Epstein’s people fall in love or flare up–or turn to toads, for that matter–with arbitrary glee.

Epstein’s ultimate alienation device, however, is his hostility. He clearly loathes his audience. Loathes us for the very fact of our being an audience. Even Susie Lowenstein rates a kind word and a second chance–but our voyeurism, our venality and parasitism, are unforgivable. Epstein seems to see us as a species of fat vermin, happy to sit in the darkness and gnaw with our eyes on whatever unlucky morsel presents itself. In Mysteries we’re stigmatized as “weirdos,” spying on the newlyweds from a safe, shadowy distance. In Pain, we’re confronted outright with the charge that we “delight in cruelty and thrive on gossip.”

All of this might have some meaning or force if Epstein had an analysis. If he understood his rage enough to place it in context. As it is, his violations of theatrical and social etiquette amount to nothing more than facile pranks. Self-conscious bad boy stunts. Far from being exposed or enlightened, his audience comes away feeling puzzled, a little victimized–as if our trust had been betrayed. Which, of course, it has. Maybe that’s all Epstein wants. It’s not enough.

I’m not sure any director could cope effectively with a pair of scripts so obviously at odds with themselves. But Norma E. Saldivar and Diana Spinrad have made respectable efforts. Saldivar makes the mistake of trying to get sincere with Mysteries, a strategy that only exposes the playwright’s confusion. She’d have done better to treat it the way Spinrad treats Pain: as a pure goof.

Carrie Levin makes a funny, sanctimonious Susie, and Larry Neumann Jr. generates a wonderful pathos as one of her miserable assistants. Caroline Schless, on the other hand, seemed completely without definition as Camden, the second assistant–partly because John Nasca’s costume made such an inchoate mess of her. Donald Nicholis and Clare Nolan-Long were equally shapeless, if better tailored, as the newlyweds in Mysteries.

Speaking of decency and betrayal, the Northlight Theatre’s struck a jab, if not exactly a blow, against the collapse of ethical standards by reviving last winter’s hit production of Dealing. Written by Richard Fire and June Shellene, and set in a Chicago commodities exchange, Dealing is a well-constructed message entertainment about the fortunes of various creatures of the exchange over the course of two trading days. There’s big-mouth Sid, nerdy Ronnie, slimy Bob, edgy John, pragmatic George, ambitious Gary, and cokehead Valeach of whom is pretty much tagged from the start, each of whom pursues a tidy, nicely integrated story thread to its homiletic conclusion.

Dealing’s not great literature. Its overly determined structure keeps it from asking essential questions, or even acknowledging its own implications. Fire and Shellene run a sharp critique of the predatory character of American business, its crude, corrupting ethic according to which anything’s right as long as you get away with it. But they never manage the final stretch, the recognition that these evils are inherent. They never tap into the true savagery of the thing.

Still, the suggestion’s there. Overwhelmingly there. And so’s this exceedingly fine production. Originally directed by Michael Maggio, and resurrected under the supervision of B.J. Jones, the Northlight Dealing offers about the highest concentration of marvelous performances you’re likely to find. Tim Halligan’s delightful as Ronnie, Gary Houston’s blandly horrific as George, and Kevin Dunn’s John radiates enough queasy tension to cause ulcers in the house. Bring your Maalox.