20th-Century Pox

Purple Crayon exhumes a dated Sixties comedy; 3 Legged Race recounts the Armenian genocide

Before the start of the Purple Crayon production of Luv at the Loring Playhouse, I bought homemade root beer from a grinning redheaded adolescent in the lobby. He then followed me into the theater and sat down next to me. "My mother is in this play," he said.

"And who is your mother?" I asked.

"Pamela Burrus," he answered. He sat next to me throughout the performance, to my growing discomfort. His mother is a lovely woman, and she is the subject of desperate romantic gestures from the play's two male performers, John Trow and Mark Miller. In one sequence, Burrus seduces Miller, seizing his hand and pressing it to her heaving bosom, which inspires Miller to launch into clamorous song and then climb on top of Burrus and ravage her with groans and thrusting hips. Demanding to know how much she loves him, he tears her blouse from her body, revealing lacy black unmentionables. I did not know whether to cover my eyes or the boy's.

"I brought two friends to see the play," the boy confessed. "They didn't like it. It's not really a kids' play."

Actually, it is hard to imagine who this play is for. The script by Murray Schisgal was an off-Broadway hit in 1964 in a production that featured Alan Arkin and Gene Wilder. While a musical adaptation of the play has been a moderate success in Japan, of all places, the original script is scarcely produced nowadays and has not aged well. The comedy tells of three neurotic New Yorkers who alternate between falling in love, threatening to leap off a bridge into the Hudson River, and pulling knives on each other.

Schisgal's script is filled with japes that could have come from a novelty cocktail napkin ("I'm more in love than the day I married." "You don't mean?" "Yes. But my wife won't give me a divorce."). And it sports a brainy, laconic sensibility that lasted midway through the Sixties and then disappeared completely when such renegade humor publications as the Evergreen Review and National Lampoon made jokes about genocide and necrophilia commonplace. Next to Michael O'Donoghue's "Children's Letters to the Gestapo," written a scant eight years later and capable of horrifying to this day ("Dear Heinrich Himmler: Thank you very much for the gold star to wear on my jacket. Now I can pretend I am a cowboy sheriff."), Schisgal's humor feels tame and dated.

But I will never fault a theater company for making an unusual selection, and Luv is partly saved from being a mere historical curiosity by its jaunty, charming performances. Both John Trow and Pamela Burrus are capable comic performers in a clangorous sense: They give the funny lines a noisy, speedy spin and pull faces. Not a very subtle way to tell a joke, but then this is not a play of subtle jokes. Mark Miller, meanwhile, tackles his role as though he were inspired by television cartoons: His character, Harry Berlin, snaps out his dialogue in a bitter, adenoidal voice while contorting through space as though his midsection were hinged, sending his arms and elbows flying. It's an eccentric, surprisingly physical performance that would not be out of place in a Margolis Brown production. And since Harry Berlin is a character who dresses in rags, sleeps on the floor in a paper hat, and frequently experiences hysterical blindness and deafness inspired by an existential repulsion for life, Miller's performance is exactly right. When Miller is onstage, which is often, this creaky old black comedy again feels like a comedy, even if it no longer seems particularly black.

 

While Michael O'Donoghue might look at genocide and see the possibility for comedy, playwright/director Jackie Hayes is less callous. That said, at the opening of her play No. 7, the author seemed less than certain of what she'd created: "Tell me the truth," she demanded of me after the performance, "is this the weirdest thing you've ever seen?"

Not the weirdest, but No. 7 is nonetheless an immensely unusual work of theater. And this is exactly what should be expected from 3 Legged Race, a company that specializes in productions that combine unexpected and unusual disciplines, often in the service of surprising subjects. In this instance, Hayes's looks to the Armenian genocide, in which the Turkish government systematically murdered more than one million people between 1915 and 1923 as part of an attempt to drive the Armenian minority out of eastern Turkey (events that the Turkish government still partly denies, having successfully blocked a U.S. Congressional act this past October that would have condemned the murders).

But how to turn this into theater? Hayes's background involves creating new works that "blur the lines between performance and installation," as the program notes. At the Theatre Garage, Hayes has built a performing area that looks very much like a ruined countryside: A smashed piano and other debris lie at the center of the stage, surrounded by bales of hay, hanging sheets of fabric, candles, shrubs, and an entirely unanticipated caged hamster. Three performers (Natasha Hassett, Judith Howard, and Meg Ryan) move through this space dressed in traditional Armenian costumes, and their movements are slow and meticulous. Two begin collecting the debris and stacking it, while the third sits in the middle and grinds a crank on a modified tape recorder, playing audiotaped interviews with Hayes's grandfather, Vahram Agababian, who survived the genocide.

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