Remains Theatre and the Blue Rider Theatre

at the Blue Rider Theatre

In his controversial essay “The Theatre of Guilt,” first published in American Theatre in March 1992, New Republic critic Robert Brustein rails against art playing second fiddle to the playwright’s, director’s, or theater company’s desire to advance–or, worse, hide behind–some trendy political or social, usually mildly left-wing agenda. Brustein specifically mentions Scott McPherson’s Marvin’s Room as a show “beyond criticism,” partly because it concerns leukemia (a made-for-TV sacred cow if there ever was one) and partly because the playwright was dying of AIDS, as McPherson made perfectly clear at the time the play opened in New York.

Brustein’s choice of Marvin’s Room as his whipping boy is unfortunate, because it’s a strong play with much more going for it–lively characters, witty dialogue, a bittersweet, moving point of view–than the fact that its HIV-positive playwright wrote about living with a terminal illness. A better target might have been Activities of Daily Living, a Remains/Blue Rider coproduction. Written and performed primarily by a cast of disabled actors, this collection of five short one-acts never allows the audience to forget that it’s written and performed by the disabled. I mean, what critic would dare pan it? (Even George Bush and, God help me, Senator Orrin Hatch have worked for the disabled!)

But sadly, that is what I must do. Remains Theatre’s much-vaunted Access Project Artist Development Workshops–which the program says has pulled together “a wonderful group of writers and performers . . . exchanging ideas and insights about theater and life”–has not produced the “powerful stories” promised. Rather what we have in Activities of Daily Living is a series of mostly self-indulgent, only mildly interesting, surprisingly unenlightening short plays that only rarely rise to the level of art.

Sure, it’s kind of amusing to learn in Tekki Lomnicki’s “Archetype” that little-person Lomnicki dreams of being Michael Jordan’s lover. And it’s sort of interesting that actor-writer Rob Rotman once got a nice letter from fellow University of Iowa alum Lee Blessing (as he tells us in his monologue “Lee and Me”) praising Rotman’s theater work by, for, and about the disabled. (It’s even more intriguing, and more than a little manipulative, that Rotman would choose to tell us this in the middle of a show by and about disabled actors.) Bonnie Miller Barnes’s “A Brief History,” in which a woman who’s going to have a mastectomy talks to her lost breast, is amusing and comically surrealistic in a Philip Roth-ish, Woody Allen-ish kind of way. (The breast, played by Lomnicki, talks back.) But there is little exciting or new or particularly insightful about the human condition in any of these pieces.

What’s missing is that angry, stimulating irreverence that typified the best parts of Susan Nussbaum’s one-woman show Mishuganismo, in which she wittily revealed something I’ve always suspected, namely that self-respecting disabled people loathe smarmy Jerry Lewis and his codependent “kids.” By comparison Mike Ervin’s sardonic “The Unfortunate Family of the Year,” in which he skewers self-important charity women who thrive on feeling superior, is pretty toothless stuff.

In fact, most of this material makes the kind of mild observations on disabled life that are likely to change nothing, either in our lives or in the lives of the performers. Except perhaps to increase the number of grants the artists, Blue Rider, and Remains will get from foundations interested in funding politically nonthreatening PC projects.

This pro-status quo stance is, I think, the essence of the theater of guilt. Guilt is, after all, a defense mechanism that allows us to feign concern for our actions while continuing to avoid really examining why we do what we do. (“God, I feel guilty, chomp chomp, eating this whole, chomp chomp, bag of cookies, chomp.”) Which is why corporations that benefit from our racist culture, for example, happily fund shows that “attack” racism–at least the racism of other countries (pre-1994 South Africa) or of now safely bygone eras (pre-1970 America).

Not surprisingly, the best piece in the show doesn’t cower behind the label of theater by and for disabled actors–in her apparently autobiographical one-act “Happy Birthday From Ho Chi Minh,” Susan Nussbaum recounts her difficult breakup with a Latina lover. I’ve always thought there was something thrilling about Nussbaum’s subjective, kvetchy, extremely self-involved stage persona. She has such a sharp critical (and self-critical) mind that no part of her life or the world goes unexamined.

That is both her strength and, occasionally, her greatest weakness. Sometimes she has a way of going on and on–Mishuganismo felt a good 20 minutes too long–but like Spalding Gray, she’s learning the difficult art of transcending the self by examining it with brutal honesty. How far Nussbaum has come is apparent in “Happy Birthday,” in which she openly mocks herself: she gets very drunk at her own surprise birthday party and wheels from woman to woman to deliver a ridiculous, slurred come-on–“I forget, are you into girls?” Anyone willing to indulge in this extremely vulnerable kind of humor automatically wins my heart and mind.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Genyphyr Novak.