Jerry's apartment is perfectly squalid. The paint—where it exists—is peeling off the walls, and Jerry wages a pitched battle against a block of wood holding up a pole that doubles as his open-air closet. Soon we learn that Jerry (Stephen Cartmell) has landed in these palatial digs after leaving his wife in Omaha, where she's engaged (oof!) to one of his colleagues.
For the moment, we see a lonely man staring down his telephone. When he works up the courage to place the call, it's to Gittel (Maggie Chestovich), who bursts into her own fussy spinster's lair just in time to miss it.
All that follows in William Gibson's 1958 drama Two for the Seesaw, rescued from the vaults by the Jungle Theater, takes place in one apartment or the other. Set designer and director Bain Boehlke resists the urge simply to cut the stage into halves. Instead, Jerry's place is upstage and off to the side, its abundant gloom pushed into a recessed psychic space. In the foreground, Chestovich picks up the phone when it rings again, and the conversation that follows is strange indeed.
Cartmell plays Jerry with a droll exterior that constantly cracks, revealing his character's considerable talent for self-pity. Chestovich, meanwhile, speaks in a heavy, nasal Noo Yawk accent: When Gittel talks about the ulcer that plagues her, she tries to manage duodenum and comes up with dew-WAAHD-dee-NUMB in its stead. The charmed pair goes out for a date and returns to Gittel's place, where conversation soon turns to whether Jerry will spend the night. (One presumes it took galaxies more effort to get a "normal" '50s lady like June Cleaver into the sack.)
Their first date doesn't lead to sexual bliss, but Jerry and Gittel sure do manage to talk. And talk. Fortunately, Gibson's dialogue is for the most part tight and full of unexpected notes. Jerry pretty much spills his guts to Gittel the first night, along the way coming to the realization that he's a bit of a freeloader and a leech. He was a successful attorney in Nebraska, we learn, primarily due to the intervention and influence of his wife's father. He also shares with Gittel the insight that she's a born doormat and victim, and that she's dooming herself to being treated like a spent piece of tissue by the men in her life.
Ah, you think: So that's where the '50s male chauvinism went. Well, for all its subversive divorce and despair, this play is of its time. After they're good and friendly, then, Jerry slaps Gittel around and refuses to apologize. And he bestows upon her such terms of endearment as "bug," "waif," and "infant." Yet Gibson also paints a complicated dynamic between the two, with Jerry wanting to take care of Gittel and Gittel erecting impermeable walls of self-preservation. By the time this dance has played out, Gittel's instincts have proven to be pretty much spot-on. (We can only hope that Gittel discovered Betty Friedan a few years down the road.)
It takes a while to get there: Two for the Seesaw is long, at close to three hours and two intermissions. Inevitably, there are times when the endless chatter wears. But Chestovich and Cartmell continually wrest passion and complexity from these roles, which, if anything, are overwritten.
Ultimately, a fairly provocative picture emerges (taking into account the show's era): the idea that love is inherently a transaction, a sort of zero-sum game in which someone is always giving while the other is taking. Jerry and Gittel, for their part, figure out that there's no such thing as a free ride, though Gittel in particular could be forgiven for ardently wishing there were.