Absurdist and avant-garde theater can arrive like a breath of fresh air. Or it can land with a thud. The Flea Theater is presenting five plays by its co-founder, the influential Mac Wellman, in a retrospective called Perfect Catastrophes. The two I saw the other night illustrate both possibilities.
Bad Penny was an ideal choice to be the first production held in the courtyard of the Flea’s spiffy new Thomas Street theater. It was a muggy evening with a threat of thunderstorms, so the air wasn’t exactly fresh, but no matter. The small but pleasantly decorated outdoor space feels easy and welcoming. The characters may be, in part, mouthpieces for attitudes and obsessions, but they’re vivid, and a weird pleasure to spend an hour with in this immersive blast of encounters.
The central figure is an intense woman named Kat (a superb Emma Orme) who has, against her firm principles, picked up a “bad” – that is, a tails-up – penny. In Wellman’s world, such things can have great significance. A young man named Ray, clutching an old-style car tire, happens to be sharing a park bench with her. He becomes the reluctant object of her attention. As their absurd circumstances come into focus, more parkgoers, unbidden, join the conversation – the performance, rather – oblivious to the fact that someone else may already be speaking.
Insistent monologues swirl and clash. There’s even a Chorus of women commenting as in a Greek drama, but with meanings that are, at best, oblique. And all the while a mysterious, terrifying figure, the Boatman of Bow Bridge (that’s how we know we’re in Central Park), haunts the characters’ imaginations.
Is Kat more than a typical semi-hinged New York City eccentric? Is Ray a visitor from the past? Is the Boatman truly imaginary? We learn the answers to only some of the questions this curious script raises. But it pulls us along.
In a jarring ending, Kat morphs into a pseudo-Biblical prophet backed by a kind of medieval gospel choir. The music is good, but the scene interrupts the momentum and adds a new and dissatisfying layer of incomprehensibility. Still, for most of the play’s length, the excellent cast under Kristan Seemel’s snappy, creative direction makes the production feel like an escape to a casual garden party with one’s most off-the-wall friends and neighbors.
By contrast, there’s no escape from Sincerity Forever, performed indoors on a standard stage. This Wellman play posits a fictional Southern town whose high-schoolers buzz through the usual intensities of adolescence, the trivial and the existential alike – but all the while dressed in KKK garb.
A pair of people of color, outcasts in white-bread America, offer pointed and rather obvious commentary, condemning the white kids’ clueless prejudice, but attacking each other too – there are no easy dynamics here. Dialogue is repeated by different characters, creating eye-opening new shades of meaning. What starts as a humorous account of kids and their philosophical and sexual confusions begins to deepen.
But the momentum is short-lived. The action lolls into boredom as it erupts into bursts of unexplained anger that sour the atmosphere without gripping us. As in Bad Penny, the characters talk over each other, and they aren’t designed to depict fully realistic people for us to empathize with. But unlike in the other play, here the result is mostly just ugliness.
The fury culminates in a harsh lecture, awkwardly written and terribly delivered (through no fault of the actor’s) by perhaps the foulest and pettiest version of Jesus ever depicted on a stage. The device of turning on the house lights so that Jesus can directly berate us, the audience, might on the page seem like an effective wallop. Instead it’s a bout of aesthetic pain that does nobody any good, least of all the cast, whose ample talents are mostly wasted in this production.
So my introduction to Mac Wellman’s work, of which I’d heard, but which I’d never seen, was a mixed experience. There are five plays altogether in Mac Wellman: Perfect Catastrophes, A Festival of Plays at the Flea Theater. As with pretty much everything in this world, ya pays your money and ya takes your chances. It runs through November 1. Visit the website for tickets and info.