Jenny Magnus

at the Organic Theater Company Greenhouse Lab Theater, through November 13

Jenny Magnus’s The Willies is a collection of seven short, vastly variable pieces that allude to or directly address the anxieties that impinge on consciousness just before sleep. These vague anxieties have been called “the things that go bump in the night,” “the creeps,” “the heebie-jeebies,” and, in Yiddish, “shpilkes,” but whatever the name one’s sleep is disturbed. Before each of Magnus’s vignettes, a character tosses and turns in a single bed before rising and speaking to the audience. Interestingly, each character is poised on the brink of catharsis or further neurosis–which one is not always clear–but, more important, each has a way of grabbing the audience’s attention and not letting go.

The set is comprised of a bed with blue linens, perched on its foot, facing the audience; when Magnus “reclines” on it she’s really standing. To the left of the bed is a bat, which she uses in one section, and three old-fashioned windows hang artfully in the air. Scott Turner’s lighting design is magnificently subtle: when the lights come up, they often shine through the engraved opaque glass of these windows, appearing at times like the moon, a streetlight, or a lamp, as though someone indoors had turned on a light and we stood outside gazing in, voyeurs. At one point Magnus speaks to us in silhouette. And at the very end, when she and Joe Huppert sing a wonderful lullaby he wrote, the stage is in darkness. Throughout, the contrasts of light and dark are used to maximum effect. Magnus’s costume–a loose-fitting black satin top with an open collar and black wide-legged bottoms–works both as unisex pajamas and as a matronly hostess outfit.

Statuesque, slim, and graceful, Magnus has a deft, well-punctuated performance style. Every move seems choreographed, every line of dialogue is delivered with a precision reminiscent of the actress Kate Nelligan. This was the first time I’d seen her in a full-length piece of her own; at other times I’ve seen her with Maestro Subgum and the Whole or as a participant in a cabaret format, with perhaps three to five minutes for a monologue. Her ease with the material, the way she experimented with various personas, and the way she plunged deep into each character were all impressive.

In The Willies Magnus focuses on people who are somehow on the defensive because of their quirks. Often their fatal flaw is pride (a pathological need to be “correct,” “original,” “unflinching,” or whatever), to the extent that they’ve poisoned their own peace of mind. Yet in their nocturnal ruminations they somehow continue to skirt the truth about themselves: their ramblings are like tributaries of a river of despair, fingering out like so many veins, but they’ve lost sight of the river that’s the source of them. Magnus’s characters are wonderfully wrought, drenched in black humor, and created it seems almost to help her and her audience understand and find the dignity in the pigheaded, the stupid, and the prosaic.

In one of the most successful pieces, “The Willies,” Magnus seems to be thinking aloud as she performs, almost improvising, allowing the spaces between words to emerge as she finds her next thought. She creates a circle of intimacy so small it’s as if each audience member were at her feet, listening to the character’s painful memories of trying not to flinch in the face of real or assumed danger: this is the one who uses the bat. It was impossible to tell whether these spaces were intentional, but they definitely gave her words an almost visual impact. In this section her voice was soft, yet her words carried to the back of the Organic’s Greenhouse space.

In one of the most interesting monologues, “Thinking About Fucking,” her character is convinced that she can change back and forth from a man to a woman under the most intimate circumstances. This fascinating rambling leaves the audience spellbound. And the ending is so matter-of-fact that it’s a surprise. In “A Swift Kick” she’s an upright southern secretary undone by her love for a coworker. This monologue is deftly written, full of quaint, ornamental turns of phrase that help define the character. Her way of seeing everyday objects as metaphors for states of being works beautifully: she believes herself to be “the pink gladioli” type while her lover is more the “sprigs of twigs and pussy willow” type.

“Eureka” and “Cruise Control,” on the other hand, need further development. In “Eureka” Magnus is a Gene Hackman fan who writes to him about her experience of epiphany once she realized everyone in the world was dead. This familiar concept (recently explored by the mystic Georges Gurdjieff, as well as by Don Juan of the Carlos Castenada series) needs more than the slapstick delivery she gives it, which inhibits the audience from entering the consciousness of the character. Here Magnus is shrill and superficial in a way that’s almost wholly uncharacteristic of her care at other points. More coloration and shading are needed, and could be easily attained partly by dropping the high voice she uses to accentuate the character’s manic state. The writing is good, but Magnus falters when she goes for easy laughs at the end.

“Cruise Control” is an interesting monologue–in some ways one of my favorites despite some flaws in the writing. Magnus easily becomes a certain type of neighborhood guy, and without a big show of macho effects or mannerisms. This man begins his monologue by saying, “I don’t regret, much to my surprise, I don’t regret . . . ,” which by the conclusion seems a total lie. He talks about his love of cruise control and what that means to him as a life concept as well as a way of driving. But Magnus has him saying things that, though not outside his everyday experience, would not be said this way in his everyday speech. He describes a letter he received from his victim after a date rape as an “indictment,” for instance. And at an earlier point he says he was “exonerated” in the death of a child who ran in front of his car and was killed. Neighborhood guys in Chicago, no matter how brilliant, degreed, or well-read, do not use such highfalutin words to get their points across. Ask any mook from Taylor Street, Cicero, Pilsen, Western Avenue between North and Grand, or Bridgeport, and he’ll say she “busted his balls” before he says she “indicted him,” and that he “got off” before he says he was “exonerated.” On the other hand, what’s exciting about this character is the cathedral of deceit he’s built to protect himself from feeling his relationship to the world. Despite the occasionally inappropriate language, this character has been sympathetically created, and is one of the more interesting.

Well-written monologues, beautifully choreographed and staged action, nice lighting and set design, and of course Magnus herself make this a late-night show worth staying up to watch.