International Performance Studio

at At the Gallery

The neighborhood is a little down at the heels; the sign, red and tawdry; the lobby, luridly lit. So it’s no surprise that the cops showed up for an early performance of Peepshow. There were four of them, says the show’s producer, and they stood in the aisle and watched awhile, then left: “They said it was too highbrow for them.”

So have we come to the point where avant-garde theater can’t get arrested in this town? Not even highly pedigreed, handsomely mounted, self-consciously erotic avant-garde theater? Or is it just that Peepshow is nothing to get excited over?

At the moment, I guess I’m with the cops. I don’t like to say that–for two reasons, maybe three.

Reason number one, there’s that pedigree. Peepshow has impeccable credentials. The playwright is George Tabori, author of Brecht on Brecht, Flight Into Egypt, and the screenplays of Joseph Losey’s Secret Ceremony and Hitchcock’s I Confess–a man who at 77 is still referred to as an enfant terrible. The director, Henryk Baranowski, has directed Handke, Genet, Witold Gombrowicz, and adaptations of Kafka and Joyce, both in his native Poland and more recently in Berlin. The Eastern European connection alone would make this a hard show to dismiss. But these are also serious, acknowledged men of the theater.

And they’ve put a real stamp of quality on their show–although in an ass-backward modernist way. The characters are opaque and fragmentary; the set looks like it was hauled off a junk heap; the script, a sort of mytho-psycho-sexual Everyman, is a mishmash of styles, from Shakespearean sonnets to funk music. The pace is downright liturgical. And in context that’s all appealing. The show is . . . tasteful. It’s got that nice combative stance toward the audience, that finely honed indifference to story telling. Very classical–the theatrical equivalent of a beautiful, uncomfortable chrome-and-leather chair. If you have even a touch of the snob in you, Peepshow plays to it. Part of me really wants to like this play.

And there’s a lot to like–reason number two. Baranowski’s images especially are memorable: The birth scene, for instance, once it gets past the talking, is terrific. Jeffrey Frace as the infant poet rises dripping from an old bathtub, wearing an overcoat and decked with leaves, clutching a typewriter, thunderstruck. Later, in a scene that’s supposed to represent his marriage, Frace quarrels obscurely with Kimberly Bruce, as his wife. She lies on the floor in combat boots, muttering at the phone. They sing “My Funny Valentine” and lock in an asymmetrical embrace and complain about plumbing. He rants about valves and looks under her dress. It doesn’t sound like much, but it has a loopy, off-center logic that really works.

Until the big payoff, that is, when she gives him a pair of presents to unwrap: a big rubber phallus and a fetus in a bottle. “He didn’t want to be born,” she tells him. “Your spitting image.”

Well, sure. Don’t be shy–if you’ve got something to say, just say it. That’s Tabori’s gambit all through the play. There’s no plot to speak of, just vignettes in the life of a poet. Over and over, our hero confronts one of the women in his life. Over and over, Tabori sets up the scene, gets it rolling with its own unpredictable logic, then lets it go completely to hammer home some point that seems so obvious and banal that your first guess is he’s being ironic.

And maybe he is. But I’ll be damned if I know how you can tell. The good writing is obviously good–terse, jumpy, unpredictable. But why so many clunkers blended in? Is Tabori making a joke? A statement? Or maybe a mistake?

Which brings us to reason number three: It’s a chump’s game to criticize a play like Peepshow. No matter what you say, you’re wrong. Most plays make contracts with their audiences. Sometimes they’re simple contracts (party of the first part agrees to supply a joke every 30 seconds for two hours; party of the second part agrees not to complain about earthshaking lapses of logic, consistency, and human decency). Sometimes they’re complex. Sometimes they’re even contracts about avoiding realism and rounded characters and the like. But they let you know where you stand; they let you form expectations; they let you judge. They share the power between the artist and the audience. Peepshow doesn’t make that kind of contract. It’s arbitrary. It wants to keep the power all to itself, and in a play like this–a play about sexuality and relationships and, yes, power–you tend to notice. Ultimately, for all of its fine, stylish surface, it’s not a play I care for as much as I’d like to.

On the other hand, I care very much for this production’s performers. Jeffrey Frace is pop-eyed and wildly physical as Willie, the everypoet. When he pantomimes sexual awkwardness, he looks like an ostrich dancing Isadora Duncan. Morgan McCabe as the mother has the most incoherent part, but some of the best moments. I especially liked her in a funny scene in which she catered to her son’s artistic whims by lapping tea from a saucer while agreeing enthusiastically to utter gibberish. Noel Olken as the father has a splendid death scene, complete with a funny, obscene joke about Hamlet, a moving, gospel-tinged song, and an absolutely interminable exit. He plays a plausible funk bass for the play’s weirdest musical number, in which the women in Willie’s life dress him as a woman so he can die in peace. Or something.

Willie’s women all have fine moments, and they all sing well. I was especially taken by Kimberly Bruce’s style–warm and bluesy with a feeling of abandon. It’s hard to say how it fit in with the rest of the production, but it was a pleasure to hear.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Lewin–Jennifer Girard Studio.