Durang explains it all, sort of

Just in case you suspected Catholicism is bad, all belief is false, and all believers were foolish, “The Nature and Purpose of Everything” will assure you that you were right. Christopher Durang, the playwright, makes it very clear that we had better wise up and accept that if God exists, He is cold and indifferent to a struggling race of beings that misdirects its energies when it chooses to put faith in the unknown. And he does it all with an ever-so-soothing battery of profanity, vulgarity and occasional humor.

The plight of Mrs. Eleanor Mann of Weehawken, N.J., is at the center of Durang’s nightmare. God is bad, sure, we’ve all heard that one before, but boy is He bad to Eleanor. She is played by Jennifer Jamula ’05 with a frenetic helplessness and flushed beauty perfectly suited to her character’s own impotent longing. The impotence, though, is only because she is so overwhelmed by her isolation from anything that might provide her with pleasure or happiness. Without Jamula’s talent, director Peter Cook’s ’05 production would be lost. She manages to maintain a level of plausibility that might be impossible otherwise.

Eleanor suffers at the hand of her religious fanatic husband, Steve, who takes great pleasure in calling her a whore, hitting her smilingly, and calmly informing her of her failures as a wife and mother (not to mention kidnapping her to Iceland after assassinating the Pope). David Laufgraben ’04 plays him adequately — though one suspects that Laufgraben’s mere adequacy is a result of a confining role. He manages very well within the boundaries set by the one-dimensionality of his Big Bad Abusive Husband role. What is intended as simple cruelty and indifference, he injects with chilling malice.

The three sons are equally nasty cases, though they seem to have been picked precisely because they represent archetypal black sheep. First we have Donald, the “dope-pusher” and pimp played confusingly but fiercely by a nearly reptilian Cook. His wickedness and calculatedly shifty eyes make his delivery of characteristic lines like “Can it, bitch,” that much more stomach turning — in a good way, of course. Then there is the middle son, Gary, a homosexual. Chad Sell ’05 plays Gary with a deadpan perversity that makes you wonder whether or not the actor himself would lick his maimed younger brother’s neck while gyrating his short-shorts-clad hips, or have sex with a cross-dresser named Ralph on his mother’s bed. Hopefully not, but his example in believability is an excellent one. Said maimed brother, Little Andy, played by Jeremy Robbins ’06, lost his penis in a threshing accident. He scurries about the stage with bloody gauze on his crotch for the duration of the play and has a wonderfully expressive face that he uses well for what is unfortunately a largely unfocused, over-the-top role.

Before we go any further, here is a down-and-dirty summary of the events of this odd little play: (1) Neglected woman with abusive family has many problems, including a neighbor lady sticking her with hypodermic needles, a coach at her son’s school engaging in corporal punishment and sentences of cross-dressing, and an exaggeratedly pious husband with plans to assassinate the Pope and install his friend, Sister Annie, in his place. (2) At a moment of particular despair, a door-to-door salesman shows up and offers said neglected woman a chance to escape. She’s tremendously excited until the day arrives and (3) pious husband and friends have assassinated the Pope and are leaving for Iceland. She is forced to go, even though the salesman is supposed to return that night. (4) In Iceland all is going well except for her depression, which is only intensified by learning that her husband’s new obsession (after Sister Annie), Dame Olga (the first lady of the Icelandic stage), is married to the salesman, her savior. (5) After being told that all he said was simply to make a sale, she asks God to kill her. I won’t tell you how it ends.

I will however, explain that the torture she endures is all a result of the actions of two agents of God. The first, Ronald, narrates the events, exercises minor control over them, and occasionally jumps in, particularly as the door-to-door salesman. He is played by Bill Nealon ’05, who takes on Alex Trebek-ian airs rather than following a perhaps more advisable Alan-Cumming-as-the-emcee path. In any case, the role itself is forced and difficult to believe, especially when the audience is being bombarded with cliches and trying not to notice them for the sake of the talented actors. Ronald’s female counterpart, Elaine (Allison Goldberg ’06) also steps into the action, under his direction, to play all of the female minor characters conspiring to gradually dismantle Eleanor’s life. From the census taker who asks if she has ever had anal, oral or nasal sex, or anything with chains, to Dame Olga and her song, “Tiptoe Through the Tundra,” and Sister Annie speaking in “tongues” that just so happen to include the words “Mu Gu Gai Pan,” and “flores para los muertos,” Elaine’s many faces prove Goldberg to be a highly versatile firecracker. She is constantly acting — but she is, after all, playing an actress. It is over the top because it is meant to be so, and in the brief moments when she takes her orders from Ronald, she seems to be possessed of an extraordinary depth of character. She is always wide-eyed and slightly alarmed, and quite focused on destroying Eleanor. Together, the two lovely leading ladies create quite a charged stage.

It is worth mentioning, as well, the other minor character, the assassinated Pope, who provides us with Durang’s most irritatingly condescending summing-up of Catholic ineptitude. Visiting New Jersey to bless the air in Weehawken, the Pope (Justin Noble ’06) stumbles in, swollen and simple, underneath a polka-dotted umbrella complete with all the trimmings: marabou pouf and pink tinsel along the edges. He’s wearing a cake-topper of a Pope’s hat — literally. Decked with a bridal cake couple, his “tiara,” as Sister Annie calls it, is a wonderful prop and entirely in keeping with how Durang conceptualizes the Church. He is a simple Pope, a precious Pope, one unfit to lead himself, let alone an organization so inherently corrupt as the Church.

After that haphazard listing of clashing imagery and unnaturally included “agents of God” one can understand why the play feels like it takes place under a strobe light. Only about an hour long, this play would collapse were it forced to go on any longer — because it seems that Durang is intent on cramming as much as he can into as small a space as possible. Add the hymn of “Oh God, our light against the dark, please help us understand thy bark is far worse than thy bite,” that divides the play in half, and you’re really desperate to know why the playwright thought he was saying something new. The absurdity of its crowdedness demonstrates how the play would very much like to be funny, and in some parts it is — but most of the time the viewer feels a bit queasy and wants to escape the broken home into which he or she has been tossed.

A product of the endearing coziness of Nick Chapel and the heat of the Trumbull basement, but mostly of the manic skill of the actors, the claustrophobia of the staging is exactly what the play calls for. The actors create an excellent environment in which the audience had better like being yelled at. Liking the play simply depends on whether or not you like trite arguments against religion presented in dully familiar ways with over-stimulation of the audience and shock value substituting for content and novel ideas.

I don’t. By setting up stereotypical figures in a highly charged environment — unfulfilled housewife, domineering husband, violent drug addict, promiscuous homosexual, and addled religious types — Durang does not succeed in saying anything new. All the characters are stock, and a charged environment isn’t unusual because its Iceland or New Jersey. Durang’s characters and settings have no distinct reason for being, so the audience has no reason to emotionally invest itself in any of it. And this is why Cook and his cast have managed to succeed doubly. They’ve outsmarted Durang and his self-hatred and vitriol, and created a whole slew of characters that exist beyond their surfaces. This production has allowed its audience to care about them, to feel compassion for the lovely Eleanor. A vicious, self-interested God is denying her a very human need to end it all. It is not often that a play, especially an uncomfortable one, has you wishing a merciful death upon its heroine. This, at least, is a novelty among the play’s many platitudes.

Comments