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Somewhere Fun: plot synopsis
The team behind 2008's compelling God's Ear, playwright Jenny Schwartz and director Anne Kauffman, returns to the Vineyard with a new work about getting older in New York City. The formidable cast includes Kate Mulgrew, Kathleen Chalfant and Mary Shultz.
Somewhere Fun: theater review by David Cote
The easiest way for a critic to make an ass of him- or herself is to “discover” a movement. Few such labels stick. What’s more, canon curating seems so retrograde, so Harold Bloom, so last century. And yet, for the past decade I’ve watched an unaffiliated group of playwrights exhibit similar tendencies, abetted by like-minded directors and actors. It’s more illuminating to identify them as a trend than ignore them as a fluke. What brings out the taxonomist in me? Jenny Schwartz’s third play. In the cool, mesmerizing, weird and unsettling Somewhere Fun, language does an odd, hiccupy dance and people watch their identities wash away in a sluice of free association. It’s the latest example of what I’ll call Theater of the Meta-Diorama.
How do you know the work of a Meta-Dioramatist when you see it? Chief among the traits: extreme patterning of language, halting or repetitive speech, flattening the scene to emphasize its artificiality, eroding characters, and freely swinging between realism and whimsy. Notable practictioners include Melissa James Gibson, Will Eno, David Adjmi, Annie Baker, Young Jean Lee and Anne Washburn. You can count among their parents Beckett, Pinter, Churchill and Wellman. To call their writing surrealist or absurdist doesn’t cover it. They build boxes, fill them with bantering puppets, then point at the box.
Somewhere Fun locates itself in this arch (and often menacing) realm from its initial tableau: Madison Avenue, present day. Projected supertitles inform us of "howling wind. Just about to storm…" On cue, designer Daniel Kluger gives us a Lear-level blast of atmospheric noise as old, estranged friends Rosemary Rappaport (Kate Mulgrew) and Evelyn Armstrong (Kathleen Chalfant) meet by chance on the sidewalk. The din abruptly cuts off and Mulgrew launches into a fevered arpeggio of nostalgic recognition:
Is that you?
From a hundred thousand years ago!
When the world was in black and white!
When the world was in black and white, and I still had a waistline!
Remember my waistline?
I was practically Scarlett O’Hara in those days.
From Gone with the Wind?”
Is she speaking in an inner or outer voice? Both. Rosemary proffers her business card, but it blows away. She dashes off to a lunch date with best friend Cecelia (divinely dithering Mary Shultz), leaving behind the acerbic Evelyn to muse on change. Evelyn is in a wheelchair, steered by her day nurse, Lolita (Maria Elena Ramirez), who’s as pregnant and fecund as Evelyn is riddled with cancer.
The rest of the play unspools from that sidewalk encounter. Rattled Rosemary meets Cecelia, learns that the latter has an online beau, flirts with the waiter, experiences a kind of breakdown and finds out that her estranged son, Benjamin (Greg Keller), has moved back to New York. I don’t want to give too much away, but Rosemary meets a bizarre end (spontaneous liquefaction), subtly foreshadowed by wordplay linking Greenwich, Connecticut, to “green witch” and Oz. A jaunty police officer examines Rosemary’s remains; her son arrives on the scene, shocked; Evelyn’s cancer worsens; and, ultimately, Benjamin and Evelyn’s daughter, Beatrice (Brooke Bloom), reunite for the first time since childhood.
I won’t pretend that Somewhere Fun offers easy access or crystalline comprehension. Days later, I’m still puzzling out its connections and motifs. It may be overstuffed. And while the first act is wickedly amusing, crammed with quotable quips, the story loses force in its second and third sections. Still, the language—threaded with recursions, loops, anagrams and homophonous vamps—constantly surprises and stimulates. Somewhere Fun is about all things lost: time, memory, friendship, health, personality. “How does one recover?” goes one refrain. Beatrice lost her face in a horrific childhood dog attack (a disfigurement we project on the un-made-up Bloom). Yet for all the death and desolation pervading its action, the work has a comic lightness and verve, and ends on a tentative, romantic note.
Director Anne Kauffman’s production is impeccable. She brings her clinical eye and ear to the task of staging this thoroughly quirky fantasia, keeping it grounded in plausible emotions while obeying its formal rigor. And the actors rise to the challenge of a daunting text. Mulgrew does amazingly precise, assured work with her cascades of snaky, poetic bluster. Chalfant is her usual fine, haughty self. The young Bloom has an appealing kookiness, and Keller, the go-to dude for experimental stagecraft, pulls it off without a sweat.
If you care about theater that stretches your imagination, go see this remarkable play. As for my shiny new trend—Theater of the Meta-Diorama—I’m junking it. Awkward-sounding, misses the mark, too Museum of Natural History. All I know is, playwrights like Schwartz remake our landscape into somewhere strange, heightened and incredibly fun.—Theater review by David Cote
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote
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