MAC WELLMAN: PERFECT CATASTROPHES

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BAD PENNY directed by Kristan Seemel

Scenic Designer…………………………………………………………………..Frank J. Oliva
Costume Designer…………………………………………………………Barbara Erin Delo
Lighting Designer…………………………………………………..Becky Heisler McCarthy
Sound Designer……………………………………………………………………..Emma Wilk
Properties Master …………………………………………………………..Patricia Marjorie

SINCERITY FOREVER directed by Dina Vovsi

Scenic Designer………………………………………………………………………..Jian Jung
Costume Designer………………………………………………………………….Emily White
Lighting Designer…………………………………………………………………..Daisy Long
Sound Designer………………………………………………………………….Keenan Hurley

Mac Wellman, a noted envelope pusher in the 1990’s, is seldom seen these days on off-Broadway stages. The Flea’s SEASON OF ANARCHY festival provokes mixed emotions as to whether Wellman is playwright worth revisiting. Certainly his verbal pyrotechnics and narrative inventions offer a lively alternative to traditional approaches to stagecraft, and audiences craving an American spin on the Absurdist traditions of Ionesco and Becket will feel well fed by the the festivals one act offerings. But there’s no overlooking the fact that theater has changed significantly in the past 20 years, and much of Wellman’s writing today feels more quaintly cerebral than bracingly avant-garde.

Both BAD PENNY and SINCERITY FOREVER focus on a kind of imminent reckoning between humanity and darker forces from another plane of existence. The characters seem to be intuitively ratcheting up their idiosyncratic demeanor in anticipation of a coming event, in much the same way that animals are said to behave erratically when they sense an incipient earthquake. The set design of PENNY simulates a public park, equipped with blankets, picnic tables and a concession stand. The actors are cleverly interspersed with the audience, so you never know who’s going to suddenly jump up and start participating in the action. Man #1 (Joseph Huffman) hails from Big Ugly, Montana and, not surprisingly, has plenty to say about the Big Ugly things that have happened in his life. At the moment, he’s coping with a flat tire, which he has rolled into the park to get a better look at the damage. Eccentric Woman #1 (Emma Orme) gives the young westerner grief, but Brooklyn-accented Woman #2 (Bailie de Lacy), insist the stranger  ought to be treated hospitably. Seated on a plastic cooler, Man #2 (Alex J. Moreno) gets his two cents in, while sportily Man #3 ) Lambert Tamin) wanders about the park questioning the meaning of life. The multiple voices of the characters form a cacophonous collage of sound, and in time their jeremiads are joined by a rhythmic Chorus (Caroline Banks, Dana Placentra, and Katelyn Sabet). Religious, philosophical, flirtatious, civic, bombastic, or all of the above (this is New York, after all), the rants build to a ritualistic climax as a hooded green figure (Ryan Wesley Stinnett) – who, rather refreshingly, doesn’t speak – arrives on the scene to ferry some unlucky soul to the next world. His selection seems random, but then that’s part of the point. The park dwellers may prefer to believe they can make sense of their world through language, but the cosmos, as always, has the last word.

SINCERITY FOREVER begins with two small town high school girls (Charly Dannis and Malena Pennycook) chatting away in front of a mirror as they put on makeup and fix their hair. Their concerns are typical teen fare: who’s cool, who isn’t, who has a crush on whom, plus a bit of idle pondering about the way the world works. The scene takes a dark turn when the two don the final element of their wardrobes: the iconic white hoods of the Ku Klux Klan. On the other side of  town a group of grungy outcasts who call themselves the Furballs (Zac Porter and Neysa Lozano) gather to sound off on all the things they hate (including each other).  In a trope reminiscent of Tom Stoppard, two male Kluxers Nate DeCook  and Vince Ryne play out the same scene, with largely the same dialogue, as the girls. This time the gossip leads to flirtation and the boys begin making out. The notion of gay Klansmen is undeniably provocative, but Wellman doesn’t stop there. An apocalypse looms as one of the boys recalls his father’s last words (“She dark!”).  Daddy was referring to Jesus H. Christ (Amber Jaunai), who materializes in town to bring judgement to the wicked. Naturally, a black female Nazarene is destined to be greeted with less than a warm welcome by the racist townspeople, most of whom prefer to thump the Bible than to try to live by its tenets. As the inevitable confrontation draws nearer, tensions erupt in a kind of verbal Vesuvius.

Both plays feature strong ensembles and intriguing staging (though, of the two directors, Kristan Seemel is somewhat more successful than Dina Vovsi at getting the actors’ gears to mesh). The design teams adds ingenious touches to help immerse the audience in a comically apocalyptic universe. The material itself, though, is only partially satisfying. Wellman’s logorrhea, even in the short form, wears thin over time. By the end of each fable, the onslaught of rhetoric no longer rings with the clarity of a keenly-observed examination of communication breakdowns in modern society. It begins to sound more like the neurotic tape loop spinning inside the hyperactive mind – albeit an exceptional one – of a writer chained to his desk. Less dependence on deus ex machina endings, and a deeper dive into character dynamics, would help boost the relevance of his work for our time.

MAC WELLMAN: PERFECT CATASTROPHES continues through November 1, 2019 at The Flea Theater 20 Thomas Street, New York, NY 10007. Phone: 212-226-0051. 

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