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Penguin Island Theatre

at the Prism Gallery

John Patrick Shanley, who wrote The Dreamer Examines His Pillow, describes his play as “a heterosexual homily.” If this is the state of heterosexuality, then perhaps we’d all better throw in the towel now.

Tommy (David Atkinson) is an unshaven, slack-jawed wastrel of 27 who lounges around in rump-sprung jeans contemplating his self-portrait. Donna (Joan Jurige) is a similarly untidy young woman who wears crumpled cocktail dresses with slippers and no stockings. The play begins with Donna storming into Tommy’s flea-trap apartment. She’s mad at him for flirting with her 16-year-old sister and wants him to stop. She rages on for a while about Tommy’s slovenly surroundings, his lack of ambition and artistic talent, his cruelty at leaving her and hitting on her sister, and so on and so on. Then she kisses him passionately and says she loves him. Tommy loves her too, but gee, he just doesn’t know what he wants. After they both discourse at length about their ambivalence, Donna announces that she’s going to get her father. She leaves, Tommy starts to get himself another beer–and has a vision. This vision involves some vaguely Dantean imagery–swimming through boiling water, reaching into black holes. The light that Tommy sees appears to be the one in the refrigerator, which makes his description of the vision rather hard for us to hear.

In scene two, Donna exchanges good-natured abuse with her father, a retired artist (Ken Mitten). (Smiling remarks like “I foresee your ass with a foot in it, and the foot has my shoe on it” are the predominant mode of affectionate expression in this play.) Donna confesses that she loves Tommy’s body but she’s scared that he’s just like her father and that she’ll end up mistreated like her late mother. Would her father go talk to Tommy–and oh yes, beat him up if he doesn’t stop sniffing around her sister? At this point a good father would say: “Why are you wasting time on this loser?” Instead Dad laments that he wasn’t willing to give all for love. He agrees to go straighten Tommy out.

Scene three. Tommy thinks he has already been straightened out by his vision, which directed him to look out for number one. Dad, however, recognizes Tommy’s vision as identical to the one he had himself at Tommy’s age, and proceeds to nip this course of action in the bud with a casuistic argument worthy of a Jesuit. Donna bursts in, dressed in a wedding gown; Dad drapes his suit coat over Tommy’s trembling shoulders, clasps the couple’s hands together, and pronounces them man and wife. The kids are scared, but Dad reassures them by saying: “It’s always been a total fuckin’ mess! You gotta make big mistakes, but sex resurrects.”

“All you need is love” has never sounded more sinister. Those of us on our way from 40 to 50 are beginning to see tragic examples of what happens to old romantics. They’re usually the ones calling up late at night, drunk and crying, wondering why nothing–the career, the marriage, the kids, the diet–went the way they expected. Shanley too is old enough to know better than to claim that fucking and fighting constitute the definition of life. They’re integral parts, of course, but Shanley seems to be claiming that because misery and confusion are inevitable, they’re to be embraced rather than avoided. And anyway, love/sex transcends it all.

I don’t see that this is the heterosexual human condition. Romance in any form is essentially irresponsible, and therefore the province of the very rich, the very poor, and the very young. Donna and Tommy are none of these. They have no jobs, no education, no goals, no self-awareness, no sensitivity to each other’s needs–nothing, really, but raging hormones. And if Shanley thinks that’s enough, why isn’t he out making babies instead of plays?

Shanley doesn’t make his argument any more convincing by the speeches he puts in the characters’ mouths. When Donna wants to say Tommy’s good in the sack, she doesn’t say that but: “I am an ocean with a thousand stars reflected in it. . . . My eyes are like two black pools of water.” To tell Tommy he’s messed up, she says, “You talk about yourself like you were an isotope–unstable to the max.” Pretty highfalutin for someone who also says, “That kind of shit drives me totally insane.” The actors are obviously trying to twist their midwestern speech around a script written for a New York dialect–which makes lines like “Dis world is comin’ at me like chaotic myaadness” even more grotesque. And the overgenerous and inept scattering of “fuckin'” throughout, coupled with the scarcity of other profanities, pegs Shanley as one of the most tone-deaf cussers in the history of the English language. To paraphrase Mark Twain, he’s got the words–one word, anyway–but not the music.

The Penguin Island actors struggle bravely with dialogue that resembles long, didactic, metaphysical monologues stuck together. These characters never seem to talk to one another but are too often reduced to expressionless recitations, punctuated by a shout or two. They talk, talk, talk about their deep, intense, tempestuous feelings without one sign that such things are going on inside them. We see never so much as a glimmer of the affection that should shine through such seemingly hostile speeches as Dad’s “I can’t stand the sight of you” to his daughter. Whether the actors or the script is at fault is difficult to tell, but I’m inclined to blame the latter, in light of Shanley’s clumsiness in other areas.

The Penguin Island company claims to be interested in theater that “speaks in a savage tongue.” And with all the pat, sitcom-simple scripts being produced, I suppose I should be glad. I only wish that Dreamer’s voice were more that of the savage and less that of the anthropologist.