When I think of Frank Sinatra’s music, I do not associate it with the pithy or heavily psychological. I would imagine those of a certain age might put on Sinatra for its soothing and melodious timbres and emotionally calming effects. I am not, nor have I ever been, a Sinatra fan, so I wouldn’t know. After seeing Playing Sinatra by Bernard Kops, directed by Kelly Morgan, I am still not a fan, but I have a new respect for how the impact of melodious crooning can be exploited to evoke the opposite of reaching a zen state, more along the lines of grinding one into a hyper-manic frenzy.
The Lewises, Norman and Sandra (both psychologically terrifying and cleverly played in nuanced performances by Richard McElvain and Katharine Cullison), are brother and sister. However, when we first are introduced to them, we recognize a bond that is more than that of siblings. Initially they appear to be a domestic couple whose marriage has been worn threadbare like an overused dishrag, and whose whiteness has become a filthy-looking grey. We understand that the fresh vibrancy of their love has faded, but they remain together for companionship and affection. This assumption pertains as the playwright accustoms us to their sanguine interactions and patter and role reversals, with Norman cooking the dinner and Sandra trying to relax after coming home from her job.
Then Kops wrenches us from normality and sends us careening into the macabre. It begins with a melodious Sinatra song. Catching us off guard, the playwright slams the metaphor of “playing Sinatra” into our laps. He then tears the first layer of scales off our eyes, unveiling the intimate non-intimate secret society of these two strange ones, initiating us into their Sinatra-adherent, cultish fan club. As the initiated, we get to watch their Sinatra rituals and games and we are lulled into the understanding that this light nonsense is something they familiarly use to get through their days together and can’t live without.
Is this one raison d’être for their weird relationship which we still haven’t quite fathomed? Kops gives us a slow reveal. He saves his surprises like jack-in-the-boxes that at each turn blast up grimacing clowns to make us jump back or inside ourselves, looking briefly at the twists and turns of sadism and self-abuse. Before each of these blast-offs, a Sinatra song ushers in the unsightly, disturbing revelation. These interludes are well timed by the playwright for we are mesmerized by the sinking feeling we will be turned over into the deepest self-confrontation by the end of the play, regardless of whether we are Sinatra fans.
Kops intrigues us with the Lewis’ odd, gaming behaviors, with Sandra’s pledge not to sell the decrepit house they are living in, and with their exchanges about always being who they are, as they are, where they are. Then, bam: the playwright shifts from this pleasant normality. Norman pulls a weird, shocking antic which frightens Sandra and us, and makes him laugh at his own prank. Is it funny? We laugh uncertainly and fear this act reflects Norman’s true intentions. Perhaps the playwright is foreshadowing what may come. In Norman’s act, Kops has peeled off more scales and we see more of Norman: this passive-aggressive boy-man is half crazy. It is a few beats after this scene that we learn Sandra is not his wife, but his spinster sister whom he forces into the mommy role which weirdly looks at times like Norman’s conceptualization of the wife role. Sandra plays both like a slippery fish darting away from a devouring angler fish, playful, teasing, yet running for her life, knowing the danger of this brute who could swallow her whole, an event which, however, her own psychological devices will not allow.
At this juncture, Kops has us pinned. We’ve become immersed in these characters and their wellbeing, questioning where their twisted interplay will end, if anywhere. Kops has achieved this through sentient, logical writing which reveals the increasingly dynamic, neurotic/psychotic components in Norman’s and Sandra’s personalities. We glimpse Norman’s hatred and love for his sister through his fearful dependence upon her. We note her self-loathing because she has allowed her brother to emotionally satiate her vast empty reservoir of longing for a man to love.
Kops shows that their defense mechanisms against each other and themselves, along with their contorted fears, needs, and dependence on one another will be the destruction of themselves and their relationship. We understand this will come to be and it is well exemplified through the complexly written character development. Norman has agoraphobia and it is worsening; he can’t bring himself to even take a walk outside. Sandra has made a nullifying decision to retire from her job. This will increasingly doom her to a loneliness living with her brother in the faux mommy-wife role, a loneliness far worse than if she lived alone. Is there no hope, no respite, no deus ex machina to stop their cannibalism of each other and their self-torture?
Thankfully, it turns out there is. It comes in the person of an American, Philip de Groot (a truly great performance by the divine Austin Pendelton) whom Sandra met at the library. Sandra has taken a step toward something – hope, freedom, happiness, or is it a tragic end? We wonder as charming Philip comes into the decrepit house and Sandra introduces him to her brother and the atmosphere changes, the sibling relationship throws off its diabolical cloak, and something else comes to the fore. Phillip serves as a catalyst who by the end of the play has certainly resolved the issues between Sandra and Norman and, perhaps, the self-torment. However, in true Kops form, another jack-in-the-box blasts us off our seats. We laugh as the characters say the last of their lines, and wipe away the tears in our eyes thinking, “Ah, humanity.”
This superbly acted production will keep you on the edge of your self-awareness for its ride through the dark reaches of your own psyche. It is simply great and if you are a Sinatra fan, you will see the master crooner in a new light. Playing Sinatra is being performed at the Community Space Theater at Theatre for the New City, 155 First Avenue. It runs until October 13 and shouldn’t be missed.