Renovation Ensemble

at Cabaret Voltaire

Don’t be taken in by the hype. Cabaret Voltaire, a “new improved performance space,” is just a basement room, complete with claustrophobically low ceilings, clammy brick walls, and exposed water pipes. But don’t let the lack of material comfort keep you away, either. The people at Cabaret Voltaire have provided a remarkably smart, friendly, and paradoxically comfortable evening.

Their premiere production–Renovation Ensemble’s Urban Renovator Blues–is short, funny, interesting, and, most impressive, difficult. Daniel Wirth’s original one-act, which he also directs, is a grotesque exaggeration of American upper-middle-class values that demands manically styled performances from its two actors, John Alcott and Cynthia Wasseen.

Simply named the Man and the Woman, they are dressed as successful young professionals and pass the evening in a living room (whose is not clear) vehemently trying to remain picture perfect and “authentic” in a world full of cheap imitation (the bookshelf, for example, holds nothing but Reader’s Digest condensed books). The Man enters and immediately strips off his pants and pulls his tie out of his vest in a methodical attempt to relax. The Woman enters and unleashes a string of eloquent but blisteringly vulgar insults, and he merely compliments her on her inventive diction. Through all of this both keep smiles–or grimaces–plastered on their faces, continually posing on the sofa as if at any moment they might be caught in a family picture.

The Man and the Woman only relate to one another through inane superficialities, yet the violence with which they force one another to continue–all through pretty smiles, of course–makes the play more than just another yuppie bashing. It becomes tragically clear that these people have no choice but to maintain these facades, for their lives, mere collections of broken promises from “typical American boyhood and girlhood,” are too painful for them to confront. The Woman, asked to describe her childhood, describes herself as “the jewel in the middle of my parents’ boxing ring.” Her parents’ relationship, she coos, was like “the kick of a shotgun.” These sentiments are prepackaged and cliche-ridden, allowing the Woman to distance herself emotionally from her own life. Yet her pain is evident to the audience simply because she denies it so fiercely.

In the first three-quarters of the play, the characters’ self-concealment helps to maintain the delicate balance between brittle veneer and deep depression. These two characters, trapped in their simulated selves, at the same time are running like mad from their real, vulnerable selves. When a crack opens in the facade ever so slightly, as when they laugh uncontrollably until they can only groan with exhaustion, the full dramatic weight of the piece becomes plain.

In the last quarter of the play, we learn that these two are playing a much more complicated game than we’d thought. While the relationship between them is never quite clear, it seems he has come to her for some kind of fantasy fulfillment. This last section falls rather flat because the concealment that had drawn us in and made us probe these people has vanished. They begin to probe themselves, letting their facades drop; we are no longer discovering these people but are being told who they are. In this section the play seems to shift from a dramatic to a narrative mode that reveals too explicitly all those monsters that had been just barely concealed.

Alcott and Wasseen seem right at home in Wirth’s play, handling the highly stylized dialogue skillfully. Though at times Wasseen gives away too much of her inner self, she maintains a certain creepiness that enhances the text’s submerged violence. Alcott is an endlessly fascinating conundrum. His exterior remains nearly inflexible, and yet so much seems to be going on beneath the surface. And both these actors put themselves on the line, playing emotionally and physically broad scenes in which timing is everything under the scrutiny of an audience only five feet away. The risks they take raise the stakes for everyone present, making their performances not just impressive but gripping.

With the barest of essentials–a few clamp-on and track lights and several dozen chairs packed into a room perhaps 20 by 30 feet–Wirth has not only managed to give his curiously fascinating one-act depth and focus but actually made you forget all of the hindrances of the tiny space. Except for its final section, Urban Renovator Blues fairly explodes with vicious, farcical energy, yet it never overpowers its audience. Wirth makes his play succeed in an environment seemingly too small for his brand of big, broad theater, and that’s a remarkable feat.