Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Michael Weller: "Beast" and "Fifty Words"

The magic of Michael Weller's writing is such that his characters are so well-defined, so alive (even when dead) that whether they're silent, limited to fifty words, or given the fullness of a full-length, they are absolutely clear. However, as a playwright, Weller is far from economic: that's fine for the rough relationship drama of Fifty Words, in which repetition and the runaround of words threaten to kill a marriage, but the "fever dream" of Beast's comic look at war stress the same chords in all six of its hopelessly melodramatic acts.

- Beast

Photo/Joan Marcus

War is another place, another world, and we cannot hope to understand it from afar. So Weller doesn't bother trying: he just distills a secondhand vision into comedic form, literally trying to put a new face on an old dream. However, aside from one fresh (albeit decaying) face in the face of Benjamin Voychevsky (Corey Stoll), who is a war-hero turned literal zombie, the play simply repeats the same broad message over and over again. Along with his best friend, ex-GI Jimmy Cato (Logan Marshall-Green), the two encounter corruption in an arms-dealing captain, decay in the services of a pimp's blind prostitutes, violence at Benjamin's home, religion in the attitude of a trucker, and even opportunism in George W. Bush's own home. And through it all, they are the ones who turn their back on America: they are accepted (dead flesh, quirks, and all) but cannot adapt.

The aesthetics, as usual for a New York Theater Workshop production, are superb: Eugene Lee's cold set, Tal Yarden's saturated video clips, and Nathan Johnson's terrifying makeup keep things watchable. But the deeper meaning of the US flag cheaply painted on each box (Lego-like blocks that make up the sets) doesn't penetrate what is essentially an indulgent buddy comedy (with a monster). Talking about the glib surface of America is important, but even when dealing with Bush himself, things remain superficial. It's fair for Benjamin to demand his "inspiring" face on Mount Rushmore: after all, he's got as much of a pulse as the country, or for that matter, this play.

The cast is also notable: the fluttery Lisa Joyce and Steve Martin-like Dan Butler provide some nice double- and triple-casting, and both Stoll and Marshall-Green (who has finally stopped looking for the cameras) fill the play with a dangerous subtext, as if any moment the play might snap. But it doesn't: the play simply stretches further and further, a rubber-band without an exit strategy. At the end, there must be more than the parable that we need to confront the ugly truths of this country with a little more honesty.

- Fifty Words

Photo/Joan Marcus

Everything you need to know about the marriage in Fifty Words can be summed up without any words. In Austin Pendleton's clever pre-blackout moment, Adam (Norbert Leo Butz) marches down the stairs and Jan (Elizabeth Marvel) comes through the front door, the two glide silently past one another. It's as if we've caught them naked. Moments later, we see them with their masks back on, playing the happy married couple, though now we're jaded enough to realize that they won't remain clothed for long, especially when even the cheery lines cut to the quick.

Given this underlying circumstance, Michael Weller has room to play with his cute and clever lines: in fact, by starting Adam as a goofball romantic ("In case there's any ambiguity, that was foreplay") and Jan as the intelligent thinker, he's able to make the most of the contradictions that so define humanity. It's hard to notice at first (and this is why Pendleton's actor-driven focus is so efficient), but both characters are struggling to bridge the invisible difference between them. Their first night alone in nine years (their son is at his first sleepover) has Adam trying to avoid touchy subjects with wine ("This is how arguments start, isn't it?") and Jan trying to unwind the knots that have her focusing on the food rather than her feelings. Fifty words is an awful lot, but the beauty of English language is how precisely imprecise that allows characters to be when sidestepping the bitter truth. If George and Martha's parlor games defined the last generation of Americans, Adam and Jan's doubletalk defines our world today.

Rising action, especially in a two-hander, often leads to melodrama, but Butz and Marvel are too nuanced for simple climaxes, and what's particularly satisfying about Fifty Words is the way in which truth seems to catch them both by surprise: "I had no idea you were so angry," Adam says; "Neither did I," Jan replies. Pendleton also uses props to shape the nature of these arguments. One of the most intense moments ends up being one of the most tender: it's hard to carry on when you've got a shard of glass stuck in your foot. In the midst of another meltdown, one character tries to butter toast: funny how impossible the small things become when they're swept up in a larger disaster. The greatest feat of staging is Pendleton's refusal to blackout between scenes: instead, he just shows a character, frozen in time, as one scene--one year, one lifetime--bleeds into the next. Precise yet undefinable, it's one more reason we need at least Fifty Words.

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