Say you’re a playwright. You’ve got this character who’s giving you some trouble, an alpha-male Wall Street type prone to fulminating about the homeless. You like the guy, but you’re pretty sure the audience won’t, even after you take him down a peg or six and have him mouth some platitudes about all the things he’s never noticed before. All that suddenly introspective stuff isn’t working, though, because in the end, it’s just words. You decide that what you need to do is expose his vulnerability to the audience in a way they’ll feel.
So, would you have him rend his garments while crying the cathartic tears of the penitent douchebag? Nah—too on-the-nose. Show him standing over a soup kitchen steam table, ladling out minestrone? Too cheesy. Or would you, as Jennifer Maisel does in her new play at the Rorschach, have the guy (Tim Getman) stand nervously before the woman he loves in a T-shirt, boxers, and black dress socks crooning an awkward love ballad of his own composing?
You would. And it would work.
It works so well, in fact, that it almost seems like cheating. But there’s nothing inauthentic about that moment: It’s transformative. It belongs in the core curriculum at playwriting workshops. Call it, “Rescuing Unsympathetic Characters: The Black Dress Sock Fail-Safe.”
Of course, a lot of the credit goes to Getman, who carefully plants seeds of dress-sock vulnerability in the early scenes of Birds, even when he’s frothing around the stage in high yuppie dudgeon. That’s important, because those early scenes don’t have much that’s fresh. Maisel spends a bit too much time in the beginning of Birds satirizing fish-in-a-barrel targets such as wealthy entitlement and liberal guilt. There’s plenty of sharp dialogue, as when career-woman Jorie (Jjana Valentiner) sighs, “I can’t remember the last time I just wandered, without picking up dry cleaning on the way.” But Maisel uses that dialogue to make exactly the same creaky story points (stockbrokers are shallow, homeless people are wise, etc.) that were ossifying into cliché by the Reagan era. You couldn’t make those scenes any more quaintly I Love the 80s if you slapped a pair of shoulder pads on Valentiner’s suit.
But Birds has bigger fish to fry. As Maisel’s dark fairy tale proceeds, nuance and emotion leaven her characters a bit, and several moments like Getman’s dress-sock serenade are the result: small, surprising scenes that feel polished to perfection.
Every actor steps up. Valentiner’s Jorie is believably steely, intelligent, and in control until exactly the moment when she’s not anymore, and she makes that transition work. As Gus, the bear of a homeless man who knows more than he’s telling, Brian Hemmingsen exudes warmth but lets us see something dangerous behind his eyes. Marissa Molnar’s portrayal of a young prostitute known only as “A” is affecting and unsentimental. And as the evil, cackling witch Rhea, whose mysterious hold over Jorie’s mind and memory drives the narrative, Nanna Ingvarsson is having a ball. She’s doing a full-tilt Norma Desmond, lifting her grimacing face to the sky while her arms undulate slowly, menacingly, like charmed snakes. She switches from seething malice to annoyed distraction in the blink of an eye, and it gets a laugh every time.
Scenic designer Jacob S. Muehlhausen’s enormous black-and-white cityscape photomural reaches to the ceiling—which, in Rorschach’s church sanctuary performance space, is saying something—and towers over a small stage papered with newsprint. As the play proceeds, the back wall comes alive: furniture slides out, windows appear and disappear, and shadows evoke Maisel’s avian imagery.
There are many highly successful moments scattered throughout the performance. The problem—and it’s a big one—is in the connective tissue, which is to say, the plot. Maisel’s central conceit is that a hidden world of practical magic exists parallel to our own, and that this world is rife with dark spells, astral projection, shape-shifting, and mind control. This world never quite comes into focus, which is frustrating. She flatly asserts its presence without supplying a clear sense of its rules. As a result, whenever the uncanny rears its head, you are never quite sure of what, precisely, you’re meant to be seeing.
“I thought you didn’t believe in any of this crap,” Gus says to Jorie several times, and each time you think, what crap, exactly? What does she believe, and what does she not believe? Maisel and Jorie remain enervatingly mum on the subject, even after Jorie makes a series of revelations over a drunken party game. But even that straight-outta-Albee business sheds little meaningful light.
A touch of dark intrigue is welcome in fairy tales, but something different is at work here. Inessential mystery is all over the stage from start to finish. Maisel hoards necessary information much longer than she needs to; in its absence, the audience does what it can to make sense of the way characters behave. When she does finally let the information go—all at once, in thick clots of exposition that form the play’s disappointing closing minutes—you’re left feeling a bit pummeled and unsatisfied. The story you’ve just watched, although marked by moments of brilliance, didn’t so much unfold; it unloaded.