Society for New Things

Human beings rarely conform to the idealized conceptions of them that their relatives create after they die. The premise of Dan Halstead’s one-act Back Again (being presented with Wrapped Up in Pieces under the collective title “Under One Roof”) is based on this impulse to keep people with us long after they’re gone–and on the subconscious wish to make their replacements into what we want them to be. In this age of instant gratification and the availability of anything for the right price, the ideal solution to the sense of loss that comes with death would seem to be robots that play back anything they are programmed to and that are physically able to do whatever their idealized human prototypes could do. But there’s a catch–the robots will only say and do what they have been told to. Garbage in, garbage out.

The desperate owners try hard, though. An egocentric young man promptly programs his new “roommate” to be a combination calendar/alarm clock/yes-man: “If I say, ‘I don’t feel well,’ you say, ‘Stay home from work then.'” A jealous brother directs his “mother” to love him more than his sibling. A dominating mother introduces her “son” to a horrified neighbor, saying, “He’s Kevin to me, even if he’s not. It’s so nice to have a man around the house.” When the visitor still insists on making a hasty exit, the mother calls after her, “I’ll put him away next time so you won’t be so nervous.”

The adage about being wary of wishes coming true holds, however, and the would-be Pygmalions discover that even with complete control nothing changes. A daughter whose “mother” is now all supportive permissiveness shouts at the silent mannequin to shut up, declaring, “You don’t control me anymore. I will not tolerate any interference in my life.” The dictatorial mother’s “son” still speaks rudely to her, making her so angry that she orders him never to speak again. A son wrestling with the question of his masculine identity looks to his “father” as an example. “This thing has too many complexities. What does it mean to be a man?” he asks. To which his “father” can only answer, “You’re a good boy.” Eventually the self-centered young man programs his “roommate” to kvetch at him occasionally. “Once a year I want you to say, ‘It’s obvious from your attitude that you don’t want me around here anymore.'” He ends up using his lifeless companion as a literal piece of furniture.

The possibilities are endless, and Halstead is to be commended for ignoring the two most obvious ones–neither the robots nor their owners engage in overtly sexual or violent behavior (a depressed drunk orders his “buddy” to kill him, but the machine stands passive and uncomprehending). The shallowness of the communications and the ingenuousness of the longing for selective warmth and approval in the almost exclusively familial relationships covered in the play are a sad commentary on their real-life counterparts.

The Society for New Things is more a creative workshop for developing performers than a commercial enterprise, and the 16 scenes that make up Back Again are carefully balanced to allow each cast member a variety of roles. The number of exercises sometimes seems excessive–the required reorientation between scenes becomes strenuous after the first hour, especially given the heat in the non-air-conditioned loft. Nonetheless, Halstead and his ensemble–in particular Claire McKay, Tom Rossen, and Phyllis Landando–have crafted a thoughtful exploration of interpersonal dynamics.

Russell Page performs his monologue Wrapped Up in Pieces surrounded on four sides by a scrim. “The function of walls is to separate realities–mine and yours,” he explains, smiling winningly at the spectators he cannot see. Then he spins out a Spalding Gray-style ramble. There’s a dream about being chased through a shopping mall by Dracula, and his recollection of playing “Twister” with the girl of his 15-year-old dreams, only to have his mother walk in on them (“When you come from a large family, childhood is nothing more than an endless series of interruptions”). There’s his mother’s habit of squirreling away seemingly meaningless mementos, such as mismatched chopsticks and tattered paperback novels. He quotes her favorite passage from Dr. Zhivago: “Everything is filled with the loneliness of always.” Then he asks, “What did loneliness have to do with our family? The whole time I was growing up. I was tripping over one of my brothers or sisters.”

And there’s his vaudeville-magician grandfather, who chose the moment of his death by deliberately skating over dangerously thin ice one winter. And the chronic indifference of his whole family to all but the most brief and minimal emotional expressions that finally cracks during a ludicrously trivial dispute over the proper time to scatter their grandfather’s ashes over the Jersey shore. But just when we think that Page’s long tale is going to end on a maudlin note, he recalls the incident and the song that inspired his cosmological attitude. “Life is but a dream,” he concludes.

Page has considerately provided some inventive visual effects to alleviate 60 minutes of steady verbal impartation, beginning in blackout with his arms spinning like a Ferris wheel, flashlights strapped to his wrist, as they trace the scrim’s perimeter. At one point he lights his face from below with a red spotlight, and at another point wears a mask on the top of his head, positioning himself so that the impish face of the mask is turned toward us–a singularly grotesque sight; I defy anyone to remember a single word spoken during this sequence.

These two pieces do not form a definitive analysis of our society’s problems, nor do they suggest solutions for the pain of death. But they do offer a narrowly focused scrutiny of human behavior that is all the more meticulous for being conducted in an atmosphere of reflective quiet.