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The trouble with being a really first-class actor—with being, say, Nancy Robinette—is that people expect you always to be at the top of your game. When you give a performance that would be entirely commendable in lesser hands—when, say, you bobble one or two lines during an otherwise bravura presentation of an intricately written one-woman show like Barbara McConagha’s The Obituary Bowl—somebody is bound to draw attention to it.
That somebody would be missing the point. McConagha’s play, which Robinette is doing on the off-nights at Woolly Mammoth, is funny, intelligent, and extraordinarily observant about the human condition. It’s also deeply weird—Iris, the main character, is an uncommonly literate Minnesota bank teller, a practicing Lutheran who feuds bitterly with a friend who once challenged her culinary prowess. Divorced for a quarter-century, she attends Bible study regularly and prefers married boyfriends who know they’re expected to leave before the 10 o’clock news—she finds comfort in the regular litany of “suspicious fires and random stabbings” recited thereon. She also combs the newspapers for peculiar obituaries (a commercial laundry fatality, a septuagenarian matron done in by an overaffectionate house cat), which she clips and keeps in a bowl on her kitchen counter to laugh over when the urge strikes.
The entire play takes place during a birthday picnic Iris throws at the local cemetery one fine August afternoon for her godson, Francis, who’s been dead for some months. Some people might find a one-sided conversation with a corpse a bit difficult to keep up, but not Iris; in an unrelenting torrent of giddy verbiage, she establishes her idiosyncracies: “I may well be the last person on this earth who still believes in the clothesline. I use Mother’s original clothespins and can tell you that since the advent of the ozone layer, the clothes dry twice as fast. My garden is weeded, fertilized, and lovingly cared for. I mow my lawn religiously, keep my hedges trimmed, and scald and scour my outside garbage bin at least twice a week.” Knowing all this, the audience is hardly surprised when Iris mentions a little later that she’s “been spending a great deal of time with [her] Myers-Briggs materials.” She likes to keep things in order, after all, and it’s tough to rank and categorize the people in your life if you don’t analyze them first. The sheer outrageous theatricality of all this occasionally stretches credulity; on the page, Iris is preposterously over-the-top, but Robinette (wonder that she is) brings the character believably to life.
As important to McConagha’s story as Iris’s personality quirks are those of the late Francis, whose tumultuous childhood Iris sketches in a series of long, rambling stories. He was an odd child, one of the ones who never fit in, and Iris came to care for him because (though she hates to admit it) she was once a playground pariah herself. McConagha is at her most perceptive here: “People forget that it is as odd being odd as it is observing the odd. We knew we were odd….We worked very hard to be un-odd, to please, to connect. Nothing worked.” The playwright understands—and illuminates—the terrible isolation of the misfit and how the outcast’s bitterness alienates him even from other outcasts. “You cannot put all the losers in the world on an island and expect harmony,” Iris says. “The odd cannot bond even to the odd. We come in a variety of subspecies, none of which interrelate in any way.”
But Iris and Francis “turned out to be members of the same subspecies”; his short attention span and erratic memory always drove her batty (they offended that rigid sense of order), but her pride knew no limits when he finally discovered a talent for drawing—here was a square hole for her rough-edged square peg. Later, when an accident on an icy road left Francis brain-damaged, his motor skills impaired, Iris’ despair quite literally knew no bounds. It’s that grief and its consequences that have brought Iris to the cemetery; there are one or two things, it becomes clear, that she still needs to tell Francis. McConagha is most interested in connections—how desperately most of us need them, how difficult they are to maintain if you don’t fit the norm, how hard they are to let go of even after they’re obviously broken. Her ideas on the subject aren’t extraordinarily original, just imaginatively framed, though admittedly her linguistic pyrotechnics jazz things up a bit.
The really spectacular thing about this production is not Robinette’s tremendous confidence onstage, nor even that she somehow manages to make McConagha’s fantastical monologues seem almost naturalistic. It’s the way Francis, who, of course, exists only in Iris’s memories, seems no less vital a presence in the theater than Iris herself. In the course of a 75-minute one-act, Robinette creates not one but two astoundingly human characters—one of them invisible—on the Woolly stage. Considering that this show is her night job, so to speak (six times a week, she carries most of the dramatic burden in Taking My Life in Your Hands over at Signature), it’s miraculous.
Of course, not everything about The Obituary Bowl is as good as Robinette’s performance. The playwright occasionally seems too fond of her own wise-ass humor, as when Iris remembers her current boyfriend’s first move toward greater intimacy: “For a second, I actually believed he was going to tell me he was a mime….It was even worse. ‘I sing barbershop.’ I was aghast! Harmony is the very last thing I want in my life.” (Yes, Ms. McConagha, we know you’re a hip urban sort, and that mime and barbershop are hopelessly banal. Do please get on with the story.) And there’s one strange and pointless speech that makes Iris sound like a particularly ill-tempered distaff version of Garrison Keillor: “If Mr. Thomas had grown up here with real Scandinavians, he’d know immediately that I am not one. Most Scandinavian-Americans are blond, reticent, ice-fisher people who always have time for another hot cup of egg coffee. They prefer live bait to live theater, and some still give Melmac as gifts and look forward to cash bars at important social events.” It’s there for the laugh, of course, but it’s too derivative, too old, and too cheap a joke.
The other main complaint is that there’s simply nothing for Iris to do while she talks to Francis. Again, most of the fault lies with McConagha, who parks Iris beside Francis’ grave and leaves her there for the duration. Designer Alice Andrini has tried to help by defining a smallish playing area with a little grove of trees, and it’s obvious that director Jose Carrasquillo and Robinette have puzzled over the problem; Iris unpacks her picnic basket at a glacial pace, and every now and again she gets up and paces around. But it’s not enough; the scene is visually monotonous, so much so that it makes Robinette’s performance seem less vital than it really is. When an actor puts as much of herself into a show as Robinette does here, that’s a real shame.CP