THE RUFFIAN ON THE STAIR
Profiles Performance Ensemble
at Red Bones Theatre
Based on an unpublished novel called The Boy Hairdresser, Joe Orton’s first produced play, The Ruffian on the Stair, was written in 1963, broadcast on BBC radio in 1964, and substantially rewritten for a 1967 production at the Royal Court Theatre. And it still looks and feels very much like an early work. Orton’s signature vicious, epigrammatic wit has not quite jelled–even the funniest lines here don’t come close to such wicked gems as “Appearances to the contrary, Mrs. Prentice is harder to get into than the reading room at the British Museum.” Meanwhile the story, the setting, and even much of the terse dialogue remind you not so much of Orton’s later taboo-flouting farces (Loot, What the Butler Saw) as of Harold Pinter’s early work.
In fact Orton admired Pinter so much that the radio version of Ruffian even contained a breakfast conversation (excised from the stage version) so slavishly imitative of the first-act breakfast scene in The Birthday Party that it reads like a bad parody.
Ruffian concerns a pair of losers: an ex-prostitute and a petty thug, Joyce and Mike, flatmates who sometimes share a bed and who treat each other with that odd combination of dependence and bored contempt that typifies Pinter’s couples. Into this Pinter-esque purgatory steps Wilson, a young hoodlum bent on revenge for the (perhaps) accidental death of his brother, which he blames–justly as it turns out–on Mike. As in Pinter’s early work, barely suppressed violence lurks behind every line of laconic dialogue, and even the most innocent comments contain subtexts bristling with rage: “Are these some kind of carp?” “No. Just goldfish.” “You can catch germs from them, you know.”
But for all its Pinteresque ways, The Ruffian on the Stair is still very much an Orton play. Unlike Pinter, Orton has a punky interest in shocking his (pre-Stonewall) audience and assaulting their prim, hypocritical middle-class sensibilities. Put another way, what Pinter conceals Orton reveals–loudly, clearly, unambiguously. Pinter may hint at the cruelty, neurosis, and polymorphous perversity bubbling just beneath society’s bland exterior, but Orton revels in it. At the top of the show, Mike tortures Joyce by joking about his clandestine liaisons in the toilet at King’s Cross station. And Wilson tries to shock Mike by admitting to an incestuous homosexual relationship with his brother.
In later work Orton’s desire to speak the unspeakable found expression in farce. In Ruffian, however, Orton (and his characters) are trapped within the structure of a Pinter play, so he contented himself with subtly subverting Pinter’s formulas–blurting out the subtext (Wilson’s queer, Mike’s emotionally dead, Joyce is a masochist) or allowing carefully repressed emotions to break free, as in the scene where Wilson trashes the stairwell or in the moment near the end of the play when Mike, convinced Joyce has been unfaithful, lashes out and reveals what deep feelings he has for her.
Naturally a play divided against itself cannot stand. With a running time of a little over an hour, this very odd one-act comes perilously close to collapsing in on itself. The fact that it doesn’t says a lot about Orton’s tremendous powers as a playwright.
Credit should also go to director Kenny Mitten and his three-member cast, all of whom throw themselves heart and soul into the production. Of the three, Kelly Butler seems most capable of gracefully negotiating Orton’s dramaturgical hairpin turns: she appears equally at home in Joyce’s serious scenes, when she’s being physically threatened, and in her comic ones.
Michael Dowd and Patrick McCartney, however, as Mike and Wilson are clearly much more comfortable with the Pinterish side of the play–McCartney in particular has a real gift for meaning more than he says, giving even the most banal line an undertow of menace–than they are with Orton’s jet black comedy.
Ironically this failing has the effect of making Orton’s play seem stronger and more stylistically consistent than it is. But by the end nothing can disguise the fact that this is two, two, two plays in one.
PEOPLE WITH PROBLEMS
Of course there are worse things a playwright can do than write a play in two competing styles. He can write a play with no style at all. Which is what happened when Gilbert Martin tossed off the silly, amateurish, sophomoric, utterly graceless and humorless comedy People With Problems, the current late-night show at the Playwrights’ Center.
Set in a church basement decorated with kitschy posters proclaiming “A Rainbow Is God Smiling” and “Smile, GOD Loves You!” Martin’s play concerns six sitcom misfits–a shopaholic, a cigarette addict, a battered husband, a battering wife, a chemical-dependent rapist thief, and a woman with a weight problem–and the self-appointed group leader, Reverend Mooney, who believes he has the answers to all their problems. Martin introduces us to these misfits one by one and invites us, in the grand tradition of Reagan-era comedy, to laugh at them, not with them. When the woman introduced by the reverend as “you, the fat one” admits she hopes the encounter group will help her lose ten pounds, Mooney shoots back: “I hope so, too. You can sit down now–if you can.”
No sooner does Martin establish his premise–that this will be a dumber, cruder, less funny version of the therapy sessions on The Bob Newhart Show–than he breaks it, allowing his story to wander crazily, as one uncanny but oddly uninteresting thing after another happens. The smoker and the woman with a weight problem fall in love and decide to get married. The abused husband and the shopaholic fall in lust and decide to dry-hump on the couch. The husband beater and the rapist run off to rob a liquor store. Eventually the police surround the church and start picking people off one by one.
Even by the Playwrights’ Center’s rather abysmal standards, this play, with its sub-Bazooka Joe wit, is a mess. Of course it doesn’t help that there isn’t a decent performer in the whole acting-impaired cast. Or that director Timothy Mooney doesn’t have a clue, and so has created a production with more embarrassing, awkward moments per minute of stage time than any play I’ve seen in a long, long while.
I never thought two hours could pass so slowly.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cindy Jahraus.