A year and a half of pandemic trauma seems only to have sharpened John Patrick Shanley’s knack for incisive humor and his ear for the heightened wit that we mere humans wish we could call upon as easily as his vividly etched fictional characters do. I Am Your Masseuse is a production of five new short plays receiving two performances by the Bridge Production Group outdoors at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. And after seeing this sparkling comedy I have to say that if we could laugh like this every day, this sorry world would be in far better shape.
Love and sex, especially sex, are the ostensible unifying themes of these crystalline comic tidbits by the author of Moonstruck, Doubt, and Joe Versus the Volcano. But on a deeper level, relationships are the lens through which Shanley examines the mysteries of self and identity. The married couple in the first play, “Bonnet,” spar over sex and fidelity. She debuts an unexpected practical approach to their love life. He bemoans having to deal with the “masculine legacy” that makes him “feel like a janitor” in his own home, yet he’s promptly blindsided by his own lust.
“Japanese Porno” takes the marriage-as-nightmare trope to another level. A wife, played with devilish mastery by Christina Toth (Orange is the New Black), is so immersed in media caricatures that her sexuality mutates into violent urges – with stunning hilarity. Meanwhile her husband (Marcus Naylor) blots out his own identity with alcohol when he loses his job. And the good samaritan who saw him home (Carlo Albán) is swept helplessly into the twisted passion play.
Toth is again screamingly funny, in a different mode, in “The Estimate.” Here a monstrously nervous, buttoned-up woman seeks release through choosing paint colors. “Maybe now I’ll be something!” she cries when her housepainter (an excellent Crawford M. Collins) challenges her to surmount a petty dining inhibition. Had the performance been indoors, Toth’s compressed tour-de-force turn would have brought down the house.
Like the slow movement in a sonata, “The Wake” unfolds relatively serenely. Two strangers reveal themselves before the corpse of a man who meant different things to each. “I am a ghost,” declares Guy, but context is key: “Every love story is a ghost story waiting to happen.” A small masterwork of the slow reveal, the piece surprises and captivates, humor subsiding to a background hum. Death may be the end for all of us, but as the piece makes clear, even death can’t wipe out a person’s identity as long as someone remembers them.
Potential, though – now that’s for the living. As Lorna (Toth again), the enigmatic masseuse in “I’m Going to Touch Your Neck,” the final playlet, intones: “Who you could be is the thing that is chasing you.” Lorna is a mystic, and the “massage” she offers Steve (Albán) is conceptual. She asks him where his soul is. “Weirdly,” he replies, “most of the time I think it’s outside of me. Like a foot outside of me, beside me.” He thinks it’s tired of him. For her part, Lorna goes where she’s needed: “Which is often a dark place. That’s why I have to navigate your wound so carefully. I don’t want to be destroyed.” Both characters fear for their selves.
But when Lorna engineers a role reversal, Steve has a revelation: “I’m everybody.” Steve is all the characters in all five plays wrapped up in one. If everybody could feel that they’re “everybody” – well, this sorry world would be in far better shape.
We can come close to such an idyllic state by experiencing art communally. Bridge Production Group’s staging of John Patrick Shanley’s I Am Your Masseuse benefits The Actor’s Fund, an excellent charity that provides human services to entertainment professionals. The second of two performances takes place on 22 August at 8 PM. Visit the website for tickets. (And for a little extra adventure: If you can access it, I recommend getting to the Brooklyn Navy Yard via the NYC Ferry.)