Stage Left Theatre

There are two one-act plays on the evening’s bill: The Patter of Tiny Mice, an original work by local playwright Anne Godden-Segard, and The Lover, a 1963 play by Harold Pinter. The Lover is excellent. The only problem is that you have to sit through the other play first. Wouldn’t you know it?

The only justification I can think of for pairing these plays is that The Patter of Tiny Mice takes place in London and is written in the style of the “theater of the absurd.” That style seems almost quaint now, especially when abstracted from the brilliant plays — by Ionesco, Pinter, Albee, etc — that established it. I don’t know what happened to the theater of the absurd, but I suspect that it was done in by imitators. The Patter of Tiny Mice, however, isn’t bad enough to kill a theatrical movement. It just kills the early part of an evening.

There are two characters in Patter, husband and wife, and they live in a small flat where they sit on suitcases, his gray, hers white. She’s going to have a baby, and once he gets over the shock, some adjustments have to be made. He has to move his baggage around to accommodate the crib, or make way for her dusting, and at one point she suggests that he arrange his suitcases perilously close to the door. Further tension arises when he makes the unappreciated comment that the baby’s head is large and lists to the left. But they iron it all out in their demure way — the marriage, that is, not the head — and by the end of the play they’ve stacked their baggage together and sit side by side as happy as a pair of fried eggs on a Samsonite plate.

Cute, huh? Well, maybe, but it’s also baldly symbolic, none too deep, and less an exercise in style than an overdone labor of fashion. Nor is the script rescued in production. Marti Hale and Chuck Goad portray this vapid couple with performances ranging from poor to bland, respectively. And, if there’s anything of substance in the script at all, which I doubt, it wasn’t distilled by Josette DiCarlo’s direction. Actually, my favorite moments were the blackouts, when some spiffy tunes like “Whistle While You Work” and “That’s Amore” covered the scene changes.

It’s unfortunate that The Patter of Tiny Mice should beg comparison with anything, even a postcard, by Harold Pinter. The Patter of Tiny Mice reduces marriage — the misunderstandings, adjustments, squabbles, and reconciliations — to simplistic and not very entertaining nonsense. Even the nonsense serves no purpose; it makes no comment. Style without substance. The Lover, however, opens up a real can of worms.

The Lover is also a play about a marriage facing a difficult arrangement. Sarah (played by Josette DiCarlo) entertains a lover while her husband, Richard (Michael Troccoli), is away at work. At least that’s what we hear, along with Richard’s taunt that he often visits a whore, as the couple politely competes in a dialogue on infidelity. But neither of them admits to any jealousy, which is strange, since there’s an obvious yet inchoate undercurrent of tension in the relationship.

In the fifth scene, Sarah is decked out in a slinky black dress, awaiting the arrival of her lover. Her whole demeanor has changed. Josette DiCarlo really turns it on here, crossing the room like an amazon, striking powerful and sultry poses, dominating her fantasy world as the mistress of the house. Enter the lover, who turns out to be Richard. But Richard wears a sweater instead of his suit, and his voice and persona have also changed, as have Sarah’s. She calls him Max; he calls her Delores or Mary. Something very weird is going on here.

The play now erupts into an orgy of absurdity, and this is where Pinter’s careful and hysterically masterful talent pays off. The sex scene alone is the oddest I’ve ever seen staged. Richard and Sarah sit together on the sofa, a pair of bongo drums between them. Richard runs a finger slowly around the edge of one drum. It squeaks. The tension mounts. Richard’s eyes are closed but his face is intense and concentrated with some inner sexual anticipation. Sarah responds. The two of them suddenly remind me of teenagers cranked up on hormones, as if the moment should bear a warning label that reads, “Beware. Contents under pressure.” Their hands entwine and they begin beating on the drum with a relentless and accelerating rhythm.

Shortly afterward, Sarah lights up a Dunhill. They play some more games — one involving a trip under the tea table — but something has gone wrong. Richard starts an argument, claiming that she (his whore) has become too bony, not nearly plump enough. He is going back to his wife and family. He leaves her stranded.

When Richard returns from work, again dressed in his suit, he becomes surly over cocktails. Sarah remains devastated from the afternoon’s rejection. He confronts her with the bongos, the smoking gun of her affair. And, in the ensuing argument, their illicit afternoon personas begin to emerge and threaten the balance of power in their well-ordered marriage. Their voices change again, and change back, until their separate worlds of sex and marriage begin to blur. Now they are engaged in a messy revolution, where skirmishes of seduction, mastery, and general emotional chaos race toward an unpredictable conclusion. That conclusion — an eerie, simian embrace — remains a mystery to me. It leaves a menacing afterimage glowing in my memory. I know that I’ve seen, but don’t understand, some crooked truth that will eventually come to get me.

Well done. Not only by Josette DiCarlo, whose presence and versatility as an actor spanned the strenuous range of her role, yet maintained a unifying integrity to her character, but also by Michael Troccoli. Troccoli does a very subtle job here, using Richard’s passive-aggressive personality to screw this play to the sticking point. Ann Fournier’s direction is strong on actor coordination, rhythm, and imagery. If she has lost some clarity in the complex and disorienting whirlpool of this script, I can only defend her by adding that she has served Pinter well by not reducing him to nonsense, babble, or pabulum.

It seems to be a natural law that the derivative rarely excels the original. And sure enough, The Patter of Tiny Mice seems pale and pointless next to The Lover. Still, perhaps there’s something to be learned here: that style is better created than imitated; that Pinter’s early plays remain vital, wildly amusing, and disturbing; and that we in the new and improved 80s have yet to come to terms with the quaint notion of the absurdity of life.