To appreciate these first two productions of the five-play Mac Wellman festival at The Flea, entitled “Perfect Catastrophes,” it helps to know that Wellman — the 74-year-old co-founder of The Flea, distinguished professor of playwriting at Brooklyn College; and author of more than 40 plays over the past 50 years – is a pioneer of what could be termed the WTF? school of theater-making. As Wellman told one of his former students interviewing him in American Theatre Magazine in 2016, he believes that “plays are not about plots. They are about moments”..and that the best plays give the audience “a slap in the face.” He is part of a generation of like-minded, now-revered theater artists who are labeled experimental and avant-garde — and challenging — such as Richard Foreman, Robert Wilson, and Lee Breuer and Ruth Maleczech of Mabou Mines, in all of whose work Wellman has said he’s found inspiration.
At the same time, at his best — and in 2016, I saw a new play of his that I consider one of his best, “The Offending Gesture” — his theater pieces are smart, playful, and clever, displaying a delightful ear for dialogue. If they are exercises in absurdity, they are rooted in the absurdities of the world in which we live.
“Perfect Catastrophes,” which runs through November 1st, will offer two world premieres. But these first two Wellman plays, “Bad Penny” and “Sincerity Forever” go back three decades. The plays are being presented separately, with separate admission, but I saw them one after the other on the same night.
“Bad Penny” was first presented in 1989 as a site-specific work in Central Park. Anne Hamburger’s En Garde Arts, the mother of all site-specific theater in New York, set it in and around Bow Bridge on the Lake in Central Park, with an 18-member cast of downtown stalwarts, including future luminary Reg. E Cathy.
In place of Central Park, The Flea has furnished their small outdoor theater (really just a narrow backyard) with a kind of Astroturf, and strings of Christmas lights overhead; the audience sits on blankets or around the periphery in a variety of mismatched lounge chairs. And instead of the members of En Garde Arts, The Flea’s production is populated by nine members of the Bats, its resident theater company, a group of mostly young newcomers that in “Bad Penny” generally show more promise than polish.
After several minutes in which the actors and the audience are one undifferentiated lounging mass, a woman pops up and starts speaking about the sky. She is Kat, (Emma Orme), and, though her monologue might feel unmoored if not unhinged, like the ranting of a mentally ill homeless person, there is something stimulating in her observations and speculations. The “true sky” may be a wonderful place “where all the lost things in the world assemble” – hats, socks, thumbtacks.
The man to whom she seems to be speaking offers a succinct rejoinder: “Go away or I’ll call the police.”
The man, Ray (Joseph Huffman), is carrying a spare tire. His car broke down on the East Side, he explains, and he couldn’t find a gas station there, so he’s going across the park to find one on the West Side. He has come from Big Ugly, Montana. He identifies himself as a “freelance memory fabulist and metaphysician and card player”
A second man (Alex J. Moreno) speaks up, doubting the first man’s story; a third man (Lambert Tamin) agrees it’s dubious; a second woman (Bailie de Lacy) attacks the third man, and defends the first man.
The kibitzing, if surreal, is quintessential New York.
“I knew I shouldn’t have picked up the goddam bad penny I found on the path, over there, near the big fountain. I knew it would turn out this way: bad,” the first woman says, which I suppose explains the title.
The arguing continues – over who’s normal, among other things – as these groups of strangers talk to each other, telling their life stories, and at each other, and about each other, joined by a chorus of three women who chant things like “Let the world be covered with rat fur” and “The Dead Boatman of Bow Bridge is coming…” And, amidst increasing cacophony, long overlapping rants and choral chants, the Dead Boatman of Bow Bridge does eventually arrive, rather anticlimactically.
“Bad Penny” is a day in the park in New York, but it’s not a walk in the park, because, as any New Yorker will tell you, New York is not an easy experience. And that, I think, is what the play is about – a heightened dramatic distillation and affectionate parody of what it’s like to live in New York, and what it’s like to be a New Yorker.
Because it is so much about the city, “Bad Penny” would surely have worked better in a set, or setting, more recognizably NYC.
“Sincerity Forever” was first produced in 1991, and dedicated to Senator Jesse Helms: “…for the fine job you are doing of destroying civil liberties in These States.” It’s surely no coincidence that the play takes place in a fictional Southern town named Hillsbottom (perhaps in Helms’ home state of North Carolina?) full of ignorant, oblivious bigots. Thanks to recent events, the play feels newly relevant, and Wellman’s mockery is balanced with an undergirding anger. The playwright’s leaps and lunges in language can also be entertaining. But “Sincerity Forever” seems simultaneously too obvious and too abstruse to be judged a classic satire. And the acting in this production only intermittently rises to the level that the material demands.
In a series of two-character scenes on a summer night in the outskirts of Hillsbottom, teenagers talk to one another earnestly about how ignorant they are, but they do so in a contemplative, nearly poetic way:
“I don’t know the difference between good art and bad art. I haven’t a clue what a ‘hostile takeover’ is, nor why junk bonds are junky,” Molly says to Judy. ” I mean why would anybody want them if they’re worthless?”
“I don’t know why the sky is blue, and I don’t know what ‘blue’ is, and I don’t know why I don’t know,” Judy says to Molly.
But Judy and Molly (and the other teenagers in subsequent scenes) conclude that their ignorance must nonetheless somehow be God’s plan. All believe, as Molly puts it, “the most important thing is not what you know, but whether you’re sincere or not…Sincerity Forever” All of the teenagers are dressed in the white hoods and robes of the Ku Klux Klan.
In two subsequent scenes, first George and Judy confess they have crushes on one another, and then Tom and Lloyd, two male teenagers, have nearly the exact same conversation. Then two furballs rant about how stupid AND insincere the people of Hillsbottom are. These are supposedly the “mystic furballs” that the characters earlier discussed, expressing fear of their destructive power.
These two-character scenes repeat, and mutate – turning cruder, crazier and more confrontational.
Early on, a black woman (Amber Jaunai) comes a-visiting, but the Hillsbottom teenagers ignore her. She turns out to be Jesus H. Christ, and, just in case you missed the point just below the surface of the playwright’s sardonic tone, at the end of “Sincerity Forever,” Jesus delivers with fire and brimstone a long corrosive sermon. I can’t help quoting a (relatively small) chunk of it:
“I came here to raise badass, obstreperous, antisocial, pestiferous, brutalitarian, loudmouthed and chaotic bloody hell. The roaring kind! You swinish, mealy-mouthed bunch of hypocrites wouldn’t know the Lord God of Hosts if he swope down and bit you on the ass. All you care about is what you look like, what you look like in a mirror, a mirror some monster furball dreamt up for you to look at to make you blind. America, you got your eyes open so wide you can’t see a fucking thing. America, you’re crazy if you think your limpdick, milksop, harebrained Christianity has anything whatsoever to do with Jesus H Christ, because that’s who’s standing here before you in the dusty ruination of the open road, because the whole point of what I am about is to shake up belief, to shake up belief and make people stop being so gosh-darned pleased with theyselves, and take a good look at what a sorry place this world is, what with all the jive-ass bullslinging and endless justifying….”
“Who was that African-American babe?” Tom asks, oblivious to the end. Jesus is still ignored.
Directed by Kristan Seemal. It features The Bats including Caroline Banks, Bailie de Lacy, Joseph Huffman, Alex Moreno, Emma Orme, Dana Placentra, Katelyn Sabet, Ryant Stinnet, and Lambert Tamin. The creative team includes Jian Jung (Scenic Designer), Emily White (Costume Designer), Daisy Long (Lighting Designer), Keenan Hurley (Sound Designer), Olivia Mancini (Stage Manager) and Lauren DeLeon (Assistant Director).
Running time: 45 minutes
Tickets; $17 to $102
Directed by Dina Vovsi. It features The Bats, including Charly Dannis, Nate DeCook, Alex Hazen Floyd, Amber Jaunai, Peter McNally, Neysa Lozano, Malena Pennycock, Zac Porter, Jonathon Ryan, and Vince Ryne. The creative team includes Frank Oliva (Scenic Designer), Barbara Erin Delo (Costume Designer), Becky Heisler (Lighting Designer), Emma Wilk (Sound Designer), Patricia Marjorie (Properties Master), Emma Sonricker (Stage Manager), and Will Steinberger (Assistant Director).
Running time: 70 minutes
Tickets: $17 to $102
Both plays are on stage at The Flea through October 7, 2019