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I-80 Drama Company
at the Neo-Futurarium
Chris Conry may have only one play–the stunning, disorienting Nebraskoblivion–to peddle at this point. But in only 90 intermissionless minutes this 26-year-old solves one of the most pressing, ubiquitous problems in contemporary American playwriting. About four decades ago writers started giving up on the well-made play, with its meticulously crafted linear plot, exposition-prone characters, neatly orchestrated despair, and inevitable redemption. Given the intense social criticism of the 1960s, it was natural for a generation of young playwrights to begin feeding off radical European experimentation, attacking the tenets of their own craft.
This era of experimentation brought anything and everything onto the stage, producing some of the most daring and challenging work in American theater. Writers felt free to cull material from any source: psychoanalysis, rock and roll, Greek mythology, daily newspapers, pornography, Hollywood westerns. Fragments of a narrative might be stitched together in illogical sequences. Actors could play dozens of characters–or none at all. They might be warming up onstage as the audience took their seats. Reenvisioning both theater and life, playwrights strove to bring their art closer to the tumultuous, contradictory forces that move ordinary people every day.
With a multiplicity of clashing voices and styles, the theater became a more unruly place. But just as the once radical realism of the late 19th century turned into the fossilized status quo of the mid-20th century, so this new American radicalism has degenerated into something like an involuntary tic. Now playwrights throw as many incongruous elements into a script as possible, as if incongruity were an end in itself. Stories go in all directions at once, characters address the audience at random moments, and intrusive voice-overs and video segments have no apparent purpose. And often all this effort is wasted on utterly conventional material that would make more sense in a traditional format. The overall effect is one of pure gimmickry, as though playwrights couldn’t stop fiddling with theatrical conventions long enough to make a point.
Conry took a conscious step into this minefield two years ago with Nebraskoblivion. He wanted to find a way out of Gimmickland, he told me, where his early scripts had been mired–in fractured narratives, bald political monologues, and self-conscious self-referentiality. But rather than give up on his nascent style, he forced himself to grapple with its complexity, inventing an elaborate but elastic framework for Nebraskoblivion, ostensibly written by reclusive eccentric “Joe Whyte.” A troupe of actors from Johnson, Nebraska, come together to present “excavated fragments” of Whyte’s play following his disappearance after he commits an unnamed atrocity. One of the actors–Ruth Lane, also Whyte’s former girlfriend–had to steal the text from his Dumpster as the FBI was sweeping his apartment. “Bearing that in mind,” another actor explains, “Gene Calardi and Stan Lowe of A-1 Waste Services should be listed in the program as contributing editors.”
This setup allows Conry to take as many directions as he chooses; after all, the evening is made up of scraps hastily plucked from the garbage. Given the daunting task of trying to sort them out, the actors often step out of their scenes to explain editorial marks or fill in biographical facts about Whyte. Their struggle to make sense of the mess left behind by a man they consider a genius gives the evening a natural urgency. And Conry raises the stakes by making the actors–and the audience–complicit in a conspiracy: they’re performing Whyte’s work without his permission. As the play begins, Ruth makes us “swear that you will never tell another living soul that you were here and will deny any knowledge of the existence of these texts and/or their public performance and/or any words, phrases, misspellings, quotations, citations, or curses that are contained within.”
The fragments of Whyte’s script concern a handful of beleaguered characters stuck in Nebraska. Mark is an overwrought customer service representative at a telecommunications company who’s struggling to prevent foreclosure on his mother’s home and feed and clothe his cloistered brother James, a self-proclaimed revolutionary. Mark has hardly a minute for his girlfriend, Kate, the cynical heir to the 3-Bond corporation slumming as a bicycle messenger. “Maybe, maybe, maybe this world is worth living in,” she says. “There might, might, might be room for another.” We meet Mark, James, and Kate in the final days of 1999, but the setting for the other main characters–desperate suburban couple Gary and Judy–is Nebraska sometime in 1973.
This is the kind of raw material that seems tailor-made for yet another scrambled, irrelevant evening of theater. But Conry’s writing reveals extraordinary intelligence and density–the last playwright to pen monologues this beguiling was Sam Shepard. Conry also sets himself apart by finding an exquisite focus for his deliberately unfocused theatrical hash. Dramatizing the psychological and emotional consequences of living life as though it were a jumble of fictional fragments, he suggests that this is the only life available to us in contemporary America.
Nearly all the characters in Nebraskoblivion seem intent on rewriting themselves. Gary switches careers without rhyme or reason, then decides his true calling is to surf the waves off Venice Beach. His wife, bewildered by the complete celibacy of their marriage in its first seven months, will do anything to spark romance; when he suggests she’s too beautiful for him, she insists that she can be ugly. Kate attempts to walk away from privilege and recast herself as a working woman–although without hesitation she pressures a congressman to vote for a bill friendly to 3-Bond. James only fancies himself an insurrectionist, shutting himself up in his apartment and shouting political screeds into his tape recorder. And Mark resorts to a felony–insider trading–to save his mother’s house, which symbolizes for him the kind of middle-class success he craves.
As Conry sets these characters on collision courses, it becomes clear how inadequate and paralyzing their adopted personae can be. The scenes may be fragmented, but the characters consistently feel trapped in the lives they’ve scripted for themselves. Their common need is to escape to some “more real” place–war-torn Chiapas in James’s case, Venice Beach in Gary’s, a boyhood home in Mark’s. This fantasy overwhelms the play about two-thirds of the way through, when two characters drive their Ford Tempo to the peak of Mount Everest–and straight off into outer space.
But escape is never really an option in Conry’s world, because his America is nothing but a web of fictions designed to disguise unsavory truths. An arms manufacturer can masquerade as a cookie company, thanks to a long line of mergers and acquisitions, beginning with Nabisco and ending with “McMillan and Gort.” Giving an American conglomerate the right to displace native Mexicans and make others dependent upon subsistence wages is euphemized as the “Freedom to Farm Act.” Worse still, the forces that once attacked large governmental and corporate interests have been bought off; Ron Stillwater, a Native American activist who led an armed insurrection against the federal government in 1973, ends up starring in the hit 1995 comedy “Ghost Pants.”
The world the play depicts is as unstable and discontinuous as Nebraskoblivion itself. Conry turns contemporary playwrights’ eagerness to head in all directions at once into a powerful metaphor for American life. Everything is provisional, he suggests, and all we can do is cling to each moment like an actor clinging to each page of an incomplete script, praying that we won’t someday discover a lost page that renders our interpretation meaningless.
Nebraskoblivion, which premiered at the Rhinoceros Theater Festival in 1999, has been substantially rewritten and is being performed by Conry’s new theater company. While he lost almost the entire original cast (only the superbly understated Chloe Johnston returns as Kate), he’s been fortunate to hang on to director Susanna C. Gellert, who’s staged a production as thought provoking and heartfelt as the original. While the cast is strong as a whole, Ian Brennan is particularly good as Mark: there seems no limit to his intellectual nimbleness as he delivers Conry’s ricocheting text without a waver.
Conry has the rare ability to cover sweeping social issues in an evening-length play, but he also proves himself an apt and sympathetic human observer, creating a fully realized character in just a few often contradictory and incomplete lines. His story may be in shards, but his characters never are. For all the grand political commentary in Nebraskoblivion, the furtive, aching exchanges between lovers and brothers are what give this play resonance. Perhaps Conry succeeds where so many of his predecessors have failed not because he manipulates theatrical conventions with greater skill, but because he feels life more deeply. i
The following plays are reviewed this week in Section Two: Disciple, Four Women of Thebes, Hellcab, Power Strokes, Shooting Porn, Summer Shorts, and Sweet Shot.