at Sheffield’s

Anton is a lousy playwright. Correction: Anton is a terrible playwright. His play doesn’t even have a plot, and his characters mouth grotesque vacuities beyond the worst teeth-clenching mediocrities of merely lousy playwrights. His girlfriend, Marylou, calls him a “cynical bastard” and a “selfish asshole” who does nothing but criticize without coming up with anything better. Anton agrees with this appraisal, in part –“I was born illiterate. . . I was made to spew bile.” He rants in frustration, “I write garbage and I don’t even know if this is more garbagey than my usual garbage.” But he insists that his literary impotence is the fault of others, namely all the playwrights who went before him, snapping up all the good plots. Even after Marylou gives up on him and takes a hike, all he can do is write sappy reconciliation scenes. No wonder that the two characters in his fledgling play take matters into their own hands.

Wait–characters from a play stepping out into reality to tell their own stories? Didn’t Pirandello do something like this back in 1921? In Six Characters in Search of an Author, however, the playwright has died even before the play begins, so he can’t rescue his blameless characters from their difficulties. Anton is very much alive and healthy, but egocentrically indifferent to anyone else, in fact or fiction. With a man of such limited imagination controlling their fate, his two characters–Shirley and a man who chooses the name “Desk” for himself–fear that their destinies will consist of nothing more than death by gratuitous violence. Taking preventive action while Anton sleeps, they compose names, personalities, and identities for themselves until they become powerful enough to imprison Anton in his own script and confront him with his irresponsibility toward his art, his audiences, and humanity in general.

If this proposition makes some playwrights in the audience nervous, that’s precisely what Adam Langer intends in What I Need is a Good Bonk on the Head. En route to his humane and astonishingly logical solution–for Langer is a far better playwright than his protagonist–there are spoofs of various theatrical genres. (The Chicago School: “Sweaty, allegorical, and say “fuck’ a lot. . . “Oh, what a motherfucking rogue and peasant piece of shit am I.”‘) But there are also some surprisingly insightful and elegantly indirect observations on the nature of fiction writing–surprising because they reiterate principles so basic that no one should have to remind us of them: showing instead of telling, and creating whole characters, plausible situations, and believable endings. Unfortunately, a look at the plays of the recent past will serve to demonstrate that a reminder is badly needed. (You know who you are.)

Bonk on the Head is not simply a humorous jeremiad against bad theater, however. Although there are traces of improv-comedy slaphappiness here and there, Langer has thought through his thesis and his different levels of reality carefully. What powers would the fictional characters have over their own actions and over their “real” counterparts? Langer makes up consistent, plausible rules for his characters. Desk and Shirley can only talk freely, for example, when Anton is asleep. And Langer makes us consider how closely Desk and Shirley parallel Anton and Marylou. Or is Shirley merely an icon bred of Anton’s fantasies? What, then, does it mean that Shirley is smarter, stronger, and more aggressive than the vague and nurturing Desk? (When Anton accuses Shirley of committing an act of unnecessary violence, she replies, “It’s your fault! You wrote that violence into my character!”) The question of what a pair of fictional characters would have to gain from turning on their creator, and what he might gain from creating them, is answered in Langer’s neatly appropriate ending.

The levity of Langer’s approach does not change the fact that this one- act is an intellectual exercise every bit as complex and prestidigital as the weightiest of existential dramas. It would be just as prone to unravel at the first careless ambiguity, too. Langer never allows this, however, but keeps his metaphysical legerdemain tight and deliberate, his characters plausible and recognizable, and his narrative progression reasonable. Meanwhile he makes it all seem so easy that even in this multidimensional world, we know where we are at all times, and are therefore delighted to discover where we end up.

The four actors maneuver their way around Langer’s cerebral universe with the same nimble flexibility they show in negotiating Sheffield’s tiny stage. Outstanding is Joe Forbrich as Anton, the playwright from hell, who even talks in stiff, stagy diction. That Langer and Forbrich ultimately manage to make this schlemiel sympathetic is testament to the skills of both. As Shirley and Desk, Julie Beckett and Jeffrey Shivar give a clear sense of their characters’ progression from Anton’s lackeys to free creatures with wills of their own. Finally, Jane deLaubenfels as Marylou is not given much to do by either playwright, but comes across nonetheless as a woman with whom one might want to share a long, long story.