at Club Lower Links

May 29 and 30

Wearing a corset and a long tuxedo coat with flowing tails, Nancy Reilly stood behind a very real bar on Club Lower Links’ dark stage. She had her hands on her breasts and was about to make her next move when she heard steps rattling on the club’s stairs.

It’s impossible to say that she stopped the show because in fact she didn’t bat an eye, staying in her character as a tough-talking barmaid in a losers’ bar. “Want a seat?” she asked the startled woman who’d emerged at the bottom of the steps, late for the show. The woman, unsure, stared at her. “Come on,” Reilly said, her gestures and voice so consistent and sure that, scripted or not, this event became part and parcel of Reilly’s story about a suffocating little bar where chaos is constant and despair is the norm.

Finally understanding that she was really being invited in, the woman sat down. Reilly turned around, tossed her hair, put her hands back on her breasts, and went on, repeating the line she’d said before the woman came in. Several more times Reilly spoke to audience members–playing herself? playing the barmaid?–in moments of controlled tension, reaching through the fourth wall, then pulling back in with an eerie ease.

A New York-based writer, performance artist, and associate of the Wooster Group, Reilly came to town and startled audiences for two nights at Lower Links with her fierce little stories. Rapid-fire and yet strangely low-key, Reilly’s The Gangster and the Barmaid, the first of the two pieces she performed, starts off innocuously enough, then slowly builds tension and a simmering rage. “The cows don’t come home in this one,” she says at one point, popping her breasts out of her corset.

At first glance the story seems to play with stereotypes and cliches: the drunks, the smelly men, the wackos who come to rest at the barmaid’s station, the other weary women who work the bar, the cool but protective bouncer/boss. The place is hopeless. But Reilly gives it a haunting quality by embracing the hopelessness of its patrons. Reilly’s people are not going to get out of here, they’re not going to fall in love, they’re not going to find a flicker of happiness if only for one night in one another’s arms. “Mister, you’ve got a worm in your drink,” she says to one particularly obnoxious patron who’s been coming on to her. “That does not exactly make you a man with a country.”

In both pieces Reilly’s people inhabit a strange kind of limbo, not quite alive, not quite in hell, not quite violent (though they’re on the edge), but not quite dead yet either. The emotional lethargy she tells us about comes from the weight of knowledge: these people know too well why they’re where they are, but they don’t have the tools to excavate themselves. They know, perhaps even understand, the mistakes they’ve made. They don’t want pity or dignity, they don’t want a hand, but neither do they want to be ignored.

Reilly plays all this like a magician. Slipping in and out of character at a moment’s notice, she works her bar with familiarity and contempt, tossing off one-liners, flirting, drinking. Keeping her voice nearly at a monotone, Reilly punctuates her tale with perfect timing, astounding concentration, and a perversely ingenious use of small props as exclamation points: she drops beer bottles and coins and spills liquor–never dramatically but always magnificently–to underscore her characters’ desperation. What at first appear to be random accidents turn into a ritual of small explosions. And the text–thick, bleak, and stripped of the slightest sentimentality–is a wonder.

Reilly’s second piece, A Professional High, also dazzles with its expert technique and use of props, but it seems less whole than The Gangster and the Barmaid. A Professional High juxtaposes two realities–childhood fears and adult fears–in its multilayered text, but the piece is a little too dense to pull off. This was, nonetheless, a hell of a performance and a hell of a night.