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At the American Film Institute’s National Film Theater to July 14

The Smell of the Kill

By Michele Lowe

Directed by Heather McDonald

At Round House Theatre to June 24

The gals sure have their men by the short hairs on local stages at the moment. Gen. Gabler’s daughter needs only to flash a chilly smile to incapacitate the gents who circle her as moths do a flame at the Lansburgh. And the unhinging of allegedly dominant males in other venues requires little more than the crossing and uncrossing of shapely legs, or the refreshing of memory, or the losing of a key in a kitchen drawer.

True, two of the week’s premieres are melodramas by authors—Henrik Ibsen and Harold Pinter—not generally credited with having much fondness for feminism, but where there’s a directorial will, there’s invariably a staging way. Intriguingly, both Michael Kahn, who’s mounted the Shakespeare Theatre’s mostly riveting Hedda Gabler, and Richard Romagnoli, who’s staged a briskly effective The Homecoming out in Olney, have found strength for their heroines in comedy. You’ll not have laughed so much at raw menace in quite a while.

Hedda, as is her wont, is the one doing the menacing in Ibsen’s tale of marital boredom run amok, assuaging her sense of powerlessness in a male-dominated world by wrecking the lives of everyone who has the temerity to care about her. Judith Light’s imperious Hedda is as frigid as she is capricious, dominating her milquetoast of a husband (Michael Rudko, doing hesitancy with Jimmy Stewart inflections) so flintily that she gets laughs with sideways glances and sarcastic sighs. Ibsen, of course, also gave the character plenty of snappy put-downs, and the actress delivers them in a clipped, even voice that turns them into haymakers. In fact, she’s so effective skewering her husband and his academic rival Lovborg (Thomas Jay Ryan) that in the evening’s later stages, when she’s required to show fear and indecision, you don’t quite believe her. Offering a pistol to Lovborg—urging him to kill himself “beautifully”—and throwing his precious manuscript into a fire, she’s magnificent. Cowering at the merest whisper of scandal, she seems mostly to be bowing to authorial whim.

But then, the fault lies as much with Ibsen as with the Shakespeare Theatre’s production. Melodramatic twisting and trysting aside, the playwright never comes up with a persuasive reason for Hedda’s change from monster to mouse, and though actresses often labor to humanize the character by way of explaining her eventual collapse, it makes just as much sense to treat her from the start as a woman well past the verge of a nervous breakdown. That’s especially true with Kahn and his company making the malicious, soul-shattering games she plays so fiercely entertaining.

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Rudko’s hapless, wonderfully dithery academic and Ryan’s passionately disheveled writer are well-matched opposites, and Robin Gammell’s suavely calculating judge—the rival that neither of the others knows he has—is creepily right. Dee Pelletier strikes sparks as Thea, a woman usually depicted as a pushover, here revealed as a formidable obstacle to Hedda’s plans. Standing firm in her life choices, she clearly possesses more courage, if less blood lust, than her conscienceless opponent. Also fine are Ruby Holbrook and Prudence Barry as “proper” 19th-century women—who provide service to men, without asking for much in return.

Walt Spangler’s blue, pressed-tin walls, which close in ominously on Hedda as her situation becomes dire, Murell Horton’s flowing but tight-bodiced gowns, and Adam Wernick’s mournful cello riffs all contribute to the smothering claustrophobia that grips Ibsen’s heroine. The director allows things to get a bit rushed at the very end of the evening, but that’s a small annoyance in a production that gets so much so right.

Ruth, the wife who finally meets her husband’s family after six years of marriage in Pinter’s darkly comic drama The Homecoming, is less flamboyant about manipulating males than Hedda, but she’s very nearly as effective.

The family Ruth has married into is—typically for Pinter—monstrous, headed by a coarse patriarch (Ian Stuart) who justifies his eldest son’s half-decade of hesitancy about bringing his bride to meet the folks by taking one look at her and deciding she’s a “slut-bitch whore.” His two other sons—one a thuggish pimp who beats the women who work for him, the other a dimly brutish boxer—are as blithely misogynist as their dad, and if the uncle who hangs around the fringes of the household seems more benign, it’s only because he’s ineffectual in general. Together, they decide that Ruth should let her husband go home while she stays with them, paying her way by spending a few hours daily on her back in her brother-in-law’s employ. Ruth’s husband makes it clear that this arrangement is acceptable to him, and Ruth readily agrees—it’s at around that moment that she does that crossing and uncrossing of legs—a decision that came as a thoroughgoing shock to ’60s audiences at the play’s premiere.

It feels less startling today, because we’re apt to see all the characters as whores of a sort. It helps that Ruth, played coolly by Valerie Leonard, seems utterly uninterested in sex and consequently appears far more in control of the situation than the vulgar men who lust after her. In fact, the notion that Ruth might be a victim barely crops up in Romagnoli’s staging, which courts audience laughter at the men’s expense and treats the heroine as if she were a statue who’d only just stepped down from her pedestal to mingle with the masses.

Dale F. Jordan’s setting, with its crumbling, almost plasterless brick walls and filthy industrial windows, gives every appearance of having been deliberately stripped to expose the rot underneath—as might also be said of the acting style employed by the company. Everyone’s effective, with Stuart’s creepy patriarch and Robert Emmet Lunney’s threatening pimp providing especially realistic portraits of misanthropy.

That said, the director isn’t hesitant about making showily irrelevant gestures in pursuit of laughs—Tyson Lien’s idiot boxer, for instance, enters breathlessly throwing shadow punches at anything that moves, then hops from a standing position to the arm of the sofa, where he strips off his shirt and announces, apropos of nothing in particular, “I’m a bit hungry.” Through such stratagems, Pinter leavens a play where dyspepsia reigns.

Amnesia reigns in Fuddy Meers, David Lindsay-Abaire’s latest trek into the landscape of feminine frustration. As in Wonder of the World (produced last year by Woolly Mammoth with some of the same actors who appear in his latest play), the author is telling the story of a woman who sets off on a journey of self-discovery when she realizes that she really doesn’t know her husband.

This time, however, it’s not merely a question of marital miscommunication. In Fuddy Meers, Claire (Nancy Robinette) has the same sort of amnesia as that fellow with the tattoos in Memento—she wakes every morning with her mind a blank slate and must reconstruct her memories from photos and whatever people tell her. On this particular morning, after her husband (Michael Russotto) has introduced himself and her teenage son (Andrew Smith) has hit her up for lunch money, a limping man in a ski mask (Bruce Nelson) emerges from under her bed and urges her to escape with him through the window because her husband is dangerous.

Claire acquiesces, and she discovers, as they’re driving to her childhood home, that the man has a melted ear to go with his limp. Also a manacle on his wrist, which gives Claire pause. At the home of her mother (Rosemary Knower), they’re joined by another man (Doug Brown) with a manacle on one wrist and a puppet with a manacle on the opposite hand. This doesn’t particularly give Claire pause, but by the time she meets him, she’s pretty overwhelmed with just trying to understand her mom, who’s suffered a stroke and can’t put syllables together into words. “Dashadunderminstate” is as close as she can come to “That’s an understatement.” It’s Mom who gives the play its peculiar title—”fuddy meers” is how she says “funhouse mirrors,” in reference to a sideshow attraction that distorts form much as the author is distorting life in this memoryless play.

When hubby and son arrive to collect Claire, they have a policewoman named Heidi (Emily Townley) in tow, but she—like all the rest of them, really—isn’t quite what she seems. The result is all sorts of pandemonium in Lee Mikeska Gardner’s Rube Goldberg-ish contraption of a production. With its unfolding, Transformer-toy setting by Tony Cisek, Lindsay-Abaire’s wackily eccentric script, and agile, over-the-top cast, Fuddy Meers is the quintessential Woolly Mammoth show—a neo-expressionist fun-ride. It’s also surprisingly moving for an evening that seems to be pulling out all the stops just to see what will happen next. Mostly, this effect is because of Robinette, who makes Claire a marvelously complex, good-hearted blank slate. You pull for her as she tries to negotiate her way through the minefield of white lies and omissions she’s being fed by folks who may or may not be reliable. And cheer when she learns, against all odds, and without memories to guide her, to trust herself.

Debra, Molly, and Nicky, the three suburban hausfraus in Michele Lowe’s The Smell of the Kill, also learn to trust themselves, though they must first learn to team up.

Their men are an insensitive lot, more interested in philandering, hunting, and embezzling than in attending to their marriages. The men are due a comeuppance, but their wives are pliant, timid, and comfortable enough in their upper-middle-class existence not to want to upset the status quo. Until, that is, a freak accident during a dinner party gives them the upper hand.

The play takes place entirely in Nicky’s kitchen (which, as realized by designer James Kronzer, might have been lifted intact from one of the homes in the Maryland neighborhood immediately surrounding the Round House Theatre), as they’re clearing up the dishes from one of the monthly dinner parties their husbands insist on. The men have commandeered the dining room (we hear, but never actually see them) to practice golf putts, and the women, who have known each other for years without really knowing each other at all, are left to their own devices.

On this particular evening, Nicky (Jane Beard) is about to snap. Her hubby is being indicted for financial misdeeds he apparently accomplished with seed money from her savings, and she’s damned if she’s going to allow him to drag her down with him. Her fury builds as the men taunt them from the other room, but just as she’s about to explode, the men fall curiously silent. Her husband must have taken them downstairs to look at his new meat locker, she decides. And when they don’t come back for a while, she realizes she’s not the least bit unhappy…not even when she hears pounding noises wafting up through the floorboards.

Neither, as it happens, is Molly (Caroline Swift), who has been feeling suffocated by a husband who has given her gifts but not a child, and who won’t leave her alone for so much as a moment. Spouse-dependent Debra (Naomi Jacobson) is less sanguine at the thought of a husbandless existence, but her friends decide that it’s mostly a panic attack and urge her to remember that her beloved Marty is having an all-too-obvious affair. When one door closes in life, they seem to say, another always opens.

Lowe’s play isn’t remotely realistic, but it somehow thrives in the studiedly natural mounting Heather McDonald has given it at Round House. She’s encouraged her performers to roam the kitchen as if it were a cage, had costumer Rosemary Pardee attire them in differently amusing brassieres that she can expose at opportune moments, and generally goosed the evening into comically macabre life by slightly overstating every moment.

The Smell of the Kill has been produced at a number of regional theaters since its premiere, two years ago at the Cleveland Playhouse, and is apparently headed for New York next season. It feels a trifle slight to me, but then, I’m not really Lowe’s intended audience. For what it’s worth, the line “We love you, Debra, [but] we’d love you more if you left Marty in the meat locker,” got a roar of approval from the women in the opening-night audience. It must have been interesting to be a husband in that crowd. CP