Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Fifty Words and Three Changes

It's unusual to see two new plays by the same playwright within the span of two weeks; even more unusual is for them to be two so very different plays. Michael Weller's genre mash-up Beast is one those plays that, even though it doesn't quite work, has really stayed with me since I saw it: some of the images and ideas are extremely memorable. His Fifty Words is a more traditional play, story- and structure-wise—a married couple enjoying their first night completely alone when their 9-year-old son goes to a sleep-over. And, like Beast, it's not completely successful: as a "well-made-play," the incredible number of revelations and life-altering events that occur in the span of a few hours seem highly improbable. It was like looking at a series of snapshots of a marriage rather than a full portrait: each moment, in and of itself, was very nicely created and gave us a little more insight into these people; ultimately, they added up to an intriguingly fragmented picture in which the audience was able to fill in the blanks with our preconceived notions about sex, marriage, parenthood and trust. Perhaps if Weller had highlighted that fragmentation in a less naturalistic fashion—emphasized how every small tidbit of personal information we gain from someone slowly changes our image of that person over a period of time instead of trying to have his characters accomplish it all in one night—it might have worked better for me. That said, I was completely drawn into the play the entire time and there many powerful moments that, as in Beast, are unforgettable. Much of the credit for this must definitely go to actors Elizabeth Marvel and Norbert Leo Butz—as Catherine said, Marvel is amazingly fierce in this role—and to director Austin Pendleton. Finally, it's a small quibble, but I would argue that all writers need to agree to a moratorium on the "Eskimos have many words for snow" metaphor, from which the title is derived: it's a cliché and it's not really true.

I connected with Nicky Silver's dark comedy, Three Changes, much better. The piece is also a fragmented look at a family life: here, a burned out Hollywood writer returns to New York after many years away and moves in with his married younger brother. The play is not without it's problems: in particular, the results of some of the key events in the story strain credibility, as when the older brother attacks his sibling and completely (and rather quickly) destroys the younger man's confidence. There are hints as to how this might have happened later in the play but they feel a little like after-the-fact explanations. I may have responded more strongly to the characters' self-deceptions that Silver has woven throughout the play—even in the characters' monologues, addressed directly to the audience. I generally dislike this device because it often feels like a cop-out by the author: instead of allowing information about the characters to come out in action, the characters just tell us (I suspect because that's faster and much easier). In this case, however, their frequent unawareness of themselves in the context of the story, when the truth is obvious to to the audience, worked for me: it allowed these explanatory asides to function more like soliloquies (which, as an acting teacher once pointed out to me, can be seen not as speeches but as a dialogue with the audience in which—one hopes—the audience remains silent). The performances are all strong—Dylan McDermott and Maura Tierney, as the married couple, are both very good but I especially liked Scott Cohen as the prodigal—and director Wilson Milam's production moves briskly. It's a nasty little journey—the ending is especially surreal and a little twisted—but I enjoyed the trip, bumps and all.

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