Acts of Mercy

Flush Puppy Productions

at Angel Island

It’s become a commonplace to say that theater is dead, murdered by commercialization, self-indulgent experimentation, or televisionization. But the real problem is artists’ inability to bring theater fully to life. Many playwrights know how to manipulate an audience with easy morals and cheap sentiment. Many companies have mastered the fine art of throwing money at a stage. And an increasing number reduce their craft to dime-store social work, as though the theater’s primary mission were to make people feel better about themselves. But when it comes to expressing the byzantine complexities of human existence–the one thing theater must do if it’s to remain vital–most artists are at a loss.

In just one play–the blistering Acts of Mercy–New York-based Michael John Garces contributes more to the American stage than most playwrights do over a lifetime. Unearthed by Chicago’s scrappy Flush Puppy Productions–inexplicably, the script had gone unproduced for two years–it has a taut, Spartan style that masterfully blends the poetic naturalism of Chekhov, the indeterminate menace of Pinter, and the streamlined brutality of Mamet. Garces finds in unremarkable characters souls as complex, compelling, and enigmatic as any in the greatest works of theater. And he does so using a minimal yet demanding approach.

Unlike most contemporary playwrights, Garces presumes the intelligence of theater artists and audiences alike. Nothing in the script introduces the characters; we find only seven first names on the first page. Their relationships, personalities, histories, even their ages must be inferred from their lines. And there isn’t a single stage direction. At first glance, the dialogue seems meager at best. Characters rarely string together more than four or five words, almost never a complete sentence or even a complete thought. About the only things these characters say with certainty are “I don’t know,” “I guess,” and “Maybe.”

But within the first few pages, or the first few minutes of Flush Puppy’s exquisite production, it’s clear that Garces has a well-tuned ear for the way people talk, for the way they actually communicate. Focusing on five men in a family of Cuban-Americans–or, more accurately, the tattered remains of a family shredded by indiscretions and betrayals lost in the haze of selective memory–he can elicit drama from the tiniest gesture or utterance. These people’s fates are so deeply intertwined, their allegiances and resentments so ingrained after years of devotion and neglect, that they understand one another all too well–perhaps well enough to strenuously avoid genuine connection.

The play opens with Eladio beside the bed of his dying father, Nestor. Eladio is heading out for an evening with his cousins, Ricky and T.J., and wants to check in with his dad before leaving. It should be a perfunctory exchange–Eladio offers to call later–but between these two even the simplest statements spark conflict. Why would Eladio call? Nestor demands. To make sure he’s dead? To hear him not talk? Eladio can hardly muster the energy to explain or argue, and so the men talk past each other until they simply run out of words.

Garces captures throughout the flat cadences of this stunted father-son relationship while expertly orchestrating the shifting dynamics between the two. It seems they can neither talk nor stop talking to each other. Eladio would like the luxury of hating his father, but every time he tells Nestor to shut up, he offers to have some other family member check on him. Nestor claims to want to be done with his family altogether–“Don’t want no one,” he says–yet he insists that Eladio tell Ricky and T.J. about his debilitating insomnia. “Let them think about that,” Nestor says, desperate to drum up pity in the very people he wants nothing to do with.

All of Garces’s characters–who also include a stripper and Eladio’s brother’s mistress–are paralyzed by ambivalence; a decisive stance seems impossible because love and spite continually bleed into each other. Eladio and his cousins ache for some sort of masculine validation, wasting an evening in a strip club, yet all they can do is police their every word and gesture, seizing every opportunity to call someone else a faggot. Though Eladio’s brother, Jaime, won’t speak to his dying father, he longs for the old man to send for him directly rather than relying on Eladio. Jaime does visit Nestor while Eladio is out with his cousins, making one awkward attempt to overcome his deep-seated hatred. But in the first act’s harrowing climax, Jaime unleashes his anger on his father, declaring he wishes he were already dead. “I’m going to walk out of that door,” Jaime says, “and I’m not coming back until the funeral. The blessed burial….And you are going to waste time eating waste time shitting waste time not sleeping but it will never again be my time you are wasting ever.”

Garces has an uncanny ability to capture the subtlest shades of relationships while leaving them shrouded in mystery. We never know for sure why Jaime hates his father so much or why he endlessly cheats on his wife. It’s never clear why Eladio’s cousin suddenly assaults him in the strip club, or why Eladio seems to accept the blows as some sort of punishment. Because Garces never reveals this family’s history–even the history of last week–we’re forced to imagine what might have left these characters so unrelentingly despondent. And since we cannot know what drives them, we’re never sure what they might be capable of, which gives the evening a constant air of danger.

With scenes so emotionally and psychologically rich, it seems the entirety of human nature has been laid bare by the time the play ends. And Garces accomplishes this extraordinary feat simply by following his characters through a single ordinary evening.

The playwright couldn’t ask for a smarter, more nuanced production than the one Joanie Schultz directs, a world premiere. Like a handful of other great young directors in town (Eric Ziegenhagen, Hallie Gordon, Sean Graney), she can coax seemingly effortless performances that have titanic effects. Her cast waste no energy on embellishment–character walks, forced accents–but devote their full attention to the shifts in relationships that make up the play’s action. And like Garces, Schultz understands the dramatic power of concealment. Her actors spend their time masking their true emotions and intentions–just as most people do in daily life.

The performers have dug so deeply into their characters that they have no need of actorly gimmicks. And they never neglect Garces’s well-honed script, giving his rapid-fire sentence fragments an unmistakable musicality. Scenes build, creating clearly defined arcs. There’s craft in nearly every moment, lending even the most horrifying of them a kind of beauty.

This is the sort of intelligent, passionate work one sees only rarely, even on the biggest stages in town. And if this pickup band of unfunded twentysomethings holed up in a tiny storefront can act circles around our best-paid, best-rehearsed casts, one need never fear for the life of the theater.