By Justin Hayford
Since Factory Theater first staked out its lonely storefront turf in Rogers Park four and a half years ago (opening with an adaptation of Reefer Madness), it’s been easy to see the company as the Johnny Come Lately to the drunken fratboy theater circuit inaugurated by Annoyance and Torso. But over the years there’s been one important difference: while things at those other theaters dumbed down, Factory smartened up. Its shows got tighter, cleaner, more to the point (even if the point was often indulging puerile, or at least low-brow, fantasies). But as its artistic work got stronger, its theater literally crumbled; large hunks of plaster fell from the walls. Then it hit pay dirt with the sublime long(ish) running show White Trash Wedding and a Funeral, a production that did for potty-mouth humor what Andy Warhol did for Campbell’s soup. And voila–brand-spanking-new walls in the theater.
And with new drywall came a new sense of artistic courage. For despite the extraordinary skill on display in White Trash Wedding, a show so well crafted that only the overused comparison to a gem is appropriate, Factory didn’t seem to be aiming much higher than the groin. The company remained, in the words of Factory member Sean Abley, the House of Screaming Equals Funny. But with his new play Nuclear Family, Abley has rocketed his company into the stratosphere of serious theater, and has done so without sacrificing the juvenile excess that has made Factory’s best work so intoxicating.
In other words, Nuclear Family doesn’t look much like a serious play, and may well be dismissed out of hand by those who think real drama must remain stiff and somber as a Victorian drawing room. The play opens in the wee hours of the morning, as thirtysomething Mike stumbles into his mother’s house, drunk from airline cocktails, dragging along Howard, a trick he met on the plane. Soon Howard is groping in Mike’s pants, and suddenly Mike’s mother Henrietta, called Hank, bursts into the room, brandishing a gun. Of course, we all think we know what will happen next: Mike will be mortified, Hank will be scandalized, a long, tense silence will be broken by a seemingly pedestrian comment from Hank (something like, “Your flight got in late?”) meant to dramatize her habit of denying unpleasant realities, and yet another play about the blindered American nuclear family will begin.
But in Abley’s imagination, the willfully induced blindness of family propriety isn’t half so interesting as its polar opposite. When mom sees the terrified look in her son’s eyes, she bursts into hysterics. In fact, she’s been waiting in the other room for the perfect moment to scare the pants off him (so to speak). She collapses into a chair, unable to control her laughter, while Mike and Howard frantically button and zip. Clearly this isn’t a mother who refuses to see reality but one who refuses to look away, even if it means humiliating someone else.
To live in this household is to be under constant surveillance, to feel the intrusion of others into whatever sphere of privacy one might try to carve out for oneself. Hank’s daughter Ronnie comes home, hoping to study for her final exam at a local business college. Instead of leaving her in peace, Hank drones on and on about how Ronnie is wasting her time pursuing a degree when success is as simple as learning how to be a good cocktail waitress: “You gotta make those drunk scumbags want to put it in you.” Then Hank’s third child Gary staggers in, along with his business partner Ed and two drunken bimbos who fall onto the floor. “Hey, hosebags, get up and say hi to my mom,” Gary admonishes. Soon mom is up on the sofa with the ladies, swigging her beer and gyrating her hips. Mike and Ronnie lumber off to bed in disbelief.
Like I say, at first glance Nuclear Family may seem like nothing more than the usual fare from Factory. But from the start it’s clear that something serious is at stake, that this play matters more to the company than perhaps anything it’s done. These drunk bimbos, for example, are not the same drunk bimbos lampooned in White Trash Wedding, although they are played by the same actresses. They’ve evolved from cartoons into characters. They’re not quite so funny in their drunkenness this time; they’re medicated into numbness, their underlying misery barely concealed. So that while one bimbo rolls around on the floor putting panties back on the other one as Gary and his mother laugh at the spectacle, the effect is as horrifying as it is ludicrous.
And this mother isn’t the same alcoholic, gutter-mouthed mother from White Trash Wedding, either. In fact, Hank is one of the most pathetic and arresting characters on any stage this year, thanks not only to Abley’s skillful writing but to Marssie Mencotti’s mesmerizing performance. While on the surface she seems to have little to do except feed her kids beer and cuss like a sailor, she is in fact on a sobering mission: to prevent her children from achieving any degree of success. Mike and Ronnie, who show some promise, threaten her sense of inebriated complacency, and she does everything in her power to paralyze them. At the same time, she dotes on Gary, with a disturbing level of physical intimacy, because he is a drunken sot destined for failure, just like her. Dragging her kids down to her level is the only way she can avoid the pain of recognizing her own wasted life.
Abley creates a devastating portrait of a family drowning in its own dissipation, and does so with great economy and humor. Just about everyone in town has been trying to write this play for years, but most have ended up stringing together a series of dysfunctional portraits–some powerful in their own way, but none displaying Abley’s dramatic thoroughness. As one of the few playwrights in town able to sustain a scene for longer than seven minutes, he condenses and sustains action, escalating tension through a careful orchestration of well-placed detail. In one especially powerful scene Ed attempts to seduce Mike (after spending the first scene essentially raping one of the women he and Gary brought home). Ed begins by inquiring casually about Mike’s sexual history (“Are you completely gay?”), then starts pounding beer and rum, then confesses that if he were gay he would go for Alec Baldwin, then says his underwear has been bothering him and he’s been walking around with an erection all day. With each escalation, Mike pulls farther away, causing Ed’s hostility to rise. Finally he has Mike in a half nelson, forcing Mike’s head toward his crotch. This, apparently, will be rape number two.
While in real life it might take an hour or so for such a scene to play out, here it takes about three minutes. Yet Abley has so expertly consolidated reality–as all good dramatists since Aristotle have done–that the scene’s credibility never suffers. As Ed, David S. Babbitt capitalizes on Abley’s playwriting skill (as do all the members of this extraordinary cast) by keeping himself maniacally focused on getting what he wants. Nothing else matters to him onstage, giving the scene a palpable urgency. This is not a play where actors spend their time spouting semipoetic monologues or showing us how upset they can get. They’re far too busy acting to bother with any of that decorative spew.
Each cast member understands Abley’s sense of dramatic urgency, and under Joey Meyer’s unreserved direction, Nuclear Family tears through two acts at a breathtaking pace. This is a production with hardly a wasted moment, and never a belabored point. The play falters briefly in the second act, with a heartfelt confessional scene between Mike and Howard that’s a bit pat and an explosive confrontation between Mike and Gary that’s a bit forced. But by the time Abley reveals the true lengths to which Hank will go to keep her daughter from making something of her life, the play has achieved an epiphany worthy of the contemporary king of the American family drama, Sam Shepard. If Meyer’s final scene doesn’t reach the kind of harrowing heights of, say, Gary Sinise’s stunning conclusion to Steppenwolf’s recent Buried Child, well, everybody at Factory’s got a day job.
Abley still has some work to do on Nuclear Family, but the success he has achieved is impressive and, judging from what I’ve seen in town, precedent setting. In essence, he has taken the vulgar, bad-boy theatrical excess of his contemporaries–an aesthetic that has been rightly credited for drawing younger audiences into the theater–and wedded it to the richest vein in 20th-century American playwriting, the family tragedy.
If the result feels altogether too entertaining to be taken seriously, perhaps Abley is still aiming a bit low at times. But perhaps we are witnessing the birth of a new theatrical form, one which will require some getting used to before we can appreciate its importance.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): stage photo/ uncredited.