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Playwrights often employ linguistic tics to get at theatrical truth. Mamet truncates phrases to expose character; Beckett distills language until it becomes nearly as absurd as life itself. But Melissa James Gibson may be unique in treating verbal tics as valuable in and of themselves. The characters in her oddly titled comedy, [sic], speak in unison; mumble malarkey; repeat each other; declaim, obfuscate, and deny in doubletalk; and break up sentences in the oddest possible places—all of which puts them at a disadvantage when they’re called upon to make a clear point clearly.
“You do not disgust me,” Babette explains patiently to Theo when he asks why she won’t sleep with him. “You exert a repulsive force on me on a molecular level.” She means this locution to reassure her neighbor that their friendship isn’t in jeopardy, but Theo, understandably, is not reassured. Neither is he put off, however, any more than he would be if she’d recited one of the tongue-twisters their across-the-hall buddy has been so assiduously practicing.
And that, in a nutshell, is the author’s device. Her characters chatter away, often amusingly, but not to any real effect—no conflict is settled; no progress is registered—which makes sense, because these three aren’t getting anywhere in the rest of their lives, either. Babette (Susan Lynskey) is a writer whose “compendium of 20th-century outbursts” sounds abstruse enough that it may never be published. Blocked composer Theo (Michael Glenn) is struggling to come up with more than the first two bars of theme music for the Thrill-o-rama, an amusement-park ride. And gay, cat-loving Frank (Ian LeValley) spends his days getting his tongue in shape (“Sally sought some seeds to sow but sadly soon it snowed”) for an auctioneering job he’ll never get. A few other characters can be glimpsed through windows, all of them played by Jason Lott (who auctioneers up a storm) and Adrienne Nelson.
Thomas E. Donahue’s clever, if whiplash-inducing, design scheme places the characters’ tiny adjoining apartments in three corners of the Theater Alliance’s H Street Playhouse, links them with elevated walkways, and plunks the audience down in the leftover spaces in the center. This means that almost no matter where you’re seated, something significant will eventually happen behind you. But it also means that you’re engagingly close to the action—a factor Kathleen Akerley’s lickety-split staging exploits by having the performers careen from apartment to apartment at a gallop.
The cast members, besides being gratifyingly sure-footed, prove expert at turning the author’s fragmented locutions into setups and punch lines, and manage not to make the play’s rapid-fire exchanges feel too much like Friends outtakes. I’d have said the performers were all a bit long of tooth to be playing such feckless postcollegiate slackers, but some Internet sleuthing reveals that when [sic] opened in New York, the playwright felt it necessary to pen a note correcting the critics’ near-unanimous assertion that her protagonists were “twentysomethings.”
“The main characters,” Gibson wrote, “are all in their thirties, well past the point when being a wunderkind is a viable option…” On the basis of a witty but aimless play that’s longer on precocity than it is on substance, I’d venture a guess that the author is getting there herself.
Wunderkind status is still an option for Lizzie, the 6-year-old at the center of Pamela Gien’s resonant solo show, The Syringa Tree. Gliding happily on a swing when the lights come up at the Studio Theatre, she’s a well-spoken tyke, eager to introduce audiences to her South African family—not just her baby brother, stay-at-home mom, and doctor dad, but also Salamina, the deep-voiced black nanny who has raised Lizzie from infancy.
Salamina has a daughter of her own, whom she is raising in Johannesburg with Lizzie’s family, not back in her black township—a fact that will complicate quite a few lives during the play’s 100 minutes. The year is 1963, and the best efforts of a liberal white household can only partly keep apartheid’s brutality at bay. Many moments of compassion and humor will mark Lizzie’s narrative, but so will a matched pair of violent deaths and another pair of exiles, marching in too-neat symmetry on either side of the color line.
If the autobiographical nature of Gien’s story shields her neatly plotted evening from charges of political correctness, it’s nonetheless hard to miss the evenhandedness with which the two families—one black, the other white—suffer emotional setbacks. Which is not to say the setbacks aren’t harrowing and richly realized on stage under J.R. Sullivan’s direction. Gin Hammond, a chameleon who shifts skins the way most mortals change expressions, brings a measured grace to her adult characters and a guileless defiance to her children. When Lizzie sets her jaw and announces that she will accompany her parents on a mission that would daunt anyone who isn’t 6-and-a-half, there’s clearly no denying her. And by the time she’s grown up and a mother herself, she’s such a rich, full-bodied character it almost hurts to let her go. The cheering, weeping audience at the final preview clearly didn’t want to. CP