KPBS AIRDATE: February 3, 1993
Relationships aren’t easy. Just ask Wallace Shawn and David Mamet. Not that they’re having one together, but a small cast, one act play by each is running uptown on Sixth Avenue and downtown on Seventh. These pieces aren’t about good relationships, mind you. Certainly not enviable ones, especially if you’re a woman. Either of these two plays could probably qualify for the Misogyny Hall of Fame. Both are provocative and disturbing. And both productions are terrific.
Up on Sixth Avenue, at St. Cecilia’s, Sledgehammer has staged “Marie and Bruce,” a 1979 effort by actor-playwright Wallace Shawn. As is frequently the case with the Sledge-men, the production outweighs the piece. The ever-inventive Robert Brill has designed a precariously angled bedroom set, that reaches to the sky with scores of drawers, some of them accessed only by ladder. The bed swivels smartly for the party scene, then a restaurant, but in our minds and theirs, everything is the bedroom of Marie and Bruce.
She hates him, she rails at him. She screams and curses and says the same awful, hateful things over and over. Things like “You pathetic pig; you idiot. You piece of meat.” Etcetera, mainly unspeakable. Bruce mostly says ‘Yes, darling.” In composing Marie’s lines, Shawn nearly out-Mameted Mamet with the percentage of profanity. Though expletives are female-expressed, the sexual fantasies that underscore the play are 100% masturbatory male. There’s no sexiness here, but a lot of emotional brutality. And isolation. And a deep-rooted feeling of being, like the set itself, kind of boxed in.
As Marie, Christine Nicholson deftly conveys her sense of anger and angst and futility. Louis Seitchik’s monotonal, monochromatic Bruce is infuriatingly apt. The backup cast strikes just the right pose. Ethan Feerst has directed, once again, neatly, cleanly, efficiently, and with utmost control. His direction manages to be both stylized and whimsical, playing the pre-pubescent humor to maximal effect.
There isn’t much humor or whimsy in “The Woods,” David Mamet’s 1977 two-person drama which is currently receiving a wonderful airing at the Fritz Theatre downtown. Not much whimsy, but lots of that isolation and angst. At first, it looks like a budding relationship for Nick and Ruth. They’re away from the city, in a country cabin by the lake. Both hoped for a retreat. But things soon start to fall apart. She talks too much. He’s monosyllabic. She pushes for commitment. He withdraws into himself. She threatens to leave. Finally — this is Mamet-land, after all — he becomes sexually and physically aggressive. But at the end, there is a dim, flickering ray of hope.
Director Karin Williams maintains a high degree of tension throughout the piece. And the performances, by Duane Daniels and Lisa Viertel, are riveting. Both bring a frightening sort of depth to these characters, secrets untold, fears and frustrations hidden. The rhythm is just right. And the setting is superb — just the suggestions of a porch, a yard, a forest. As stark as the piece itself.
Nothing is what it seems on the surface — in these plays, or in relationships.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1993 Patté Productions Inc.