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A Fire Was Burning Over the Dumpling House One Chinese New Year





Baby Jane was a junkie and this is her story, as told by Horace, a young man who fished her out of chaos one evening and fell in love with her. It's a rambling story, and not all that dramatic. It's not nearly as gritty as Sid & Nancy, nor as profound as Long Day's Journey Into Night. But, like these other two junkie dramas, Dumpling House blurs the distinction between love and addiction. In the end, it's hard to tell who was more addicted: Baby Jane to her heroin, or Horace to Baby Jane. Even his memory of her is beyond Horace's control, and perhaps that's the reason he tells her story. As he says, "I remember it all. I have no choice."

Horace sees that Baby Jane is damaged goods and no doubt about it from the moment she enters his life. But he's hooked. She glows, and in her presence he glows. So they move in together with all the naivete of two kids playing house in an abandoned refrigerator. But, time and again, Baby Jane backslides into her heroin habit. She disappears for days at a time; then she comes back, and the relationship undergoes a sort of renaissance. And then the wheel turns 'round again. Meanwhile, new jobs and fresh starts, such as the couple's move to Atlantic City, dangle the dried carrot of hope. Eventually hope becomes indistinguishable from despair. Is it love, or is it cannibalism? When Horace tries to leave Baby Jane, he can't move. He admits, "I don't know what to do. Tell me what to do."

Well, Horace never really figures out what to do. And, since Horace narrates this tale in the past tense, it's a safe bet that Baby Jane dies in the end. What is immensely unclear about the play, however, is just how Horace feels about losing Baby Jane. Does he blame himself for surviving? Does he feel guilty for failing to rescue Baby Jane? Or does he accuse himself of a sort of infidelity, for not loving the dark side of Baby Jane enough to sacrifice himself, even to the death? I just don't know. I can't get a fix on Horace. He tells this story in a dispassionate voice, as if he were turning over so many smooth, flat rocks.

So--damn the perspective--let's take a look at Baby Jane. She's an excitable girl who has a way of turning the mundane into an event. She certainly does this for Horace. For instance, one day Horace comes home from work at the deli and--half bitching, half bored with it all--answers Baby Jane's question about how was your day at work, Honey. Horace tells her about some man who lost his temper, declaring to the entire deli that his corned beef sandwich was "completely unsatisfactory," as if his whole life depended on a sandwich. As presented, it's a mildly funny, cynical little story. But Baby Jane doesn't see it that way. She exclaims, "Honey, you've got an exciting job!" And it's with this sort of exuberance and optimism that Baby Jane assaults life when she's not on drugs. The only problem is, Baby Jane's just too weird to hang on to a job of her own, which might sustain her enthusiasm, or at least give her the comfort of routine, and so she gets bored, and she puts some heroin in her arm.

Maria Tirabassi plays Baby Jane, and her performance is incandescent. She comes dangerously close to being too cute to stomach, but somehow Tirabassi pulls this off endearingly. Still, somehow Baby Jane's exhilaration with life falls short of being infectious. It's obvious that she infects Horace, but the buck stops there. It doesn't get passed on to the audience. I enjoyed her character, but I was always watching, as opposed to partaking. Nor did I feel any emotional attachment to her, and so her death is no big deal.

Horace stands in the way. Part of this impasse is mandated by playwright Paul Peditto. The remoteness of the narrative, and the dramatic structure of too many short scenes, prevents the play from settling on any emotional truth. It could be that playwright Peditto, who based Dumpling House on "a true love story"--and dedicated it to a woman named Claire--is too close to his subject and is either afraid or unable to handle it. This reticence is passed on by Christopher Peditto (who plays Horace) in a restrained and inscrutable performance. Peditto seems withdrawn and shyly possessive in the scenes Horace shares with Baby Jane, and not in a way consistent with how Horace should be. I felt like I saw more of the real Horace in the scenes without Baby Jane, especially, oddly enough, in a scene where Horace hawks dildos on the sidewalk.

Tirabassi and (Christopher) Peditto also direct. They enliven the show with some music (lots of Tom Waits) and some Super-8 film shot on location in New York and Atlantic City. The film segments are often entertaining and lighthearted, but weighed down by Horace's brooding voice-over. In a sense, the film shorts reinforce the overall mode of the memory play, as if Horace had dragged out the Kodak projector and shown these clips in his living room. But the film interludes also further fragment a script that already takes refuge in short, underdeveloped scenes. And so the action of the play tumbles from this to that to the other, never quite losing your attention, but then never screwing it to the sticking point either.

In the aftermath, I'm ambivalent. Based on past productions, I've come to expect from Igloo unfinished yet highly engaging theater. This show is certainly unfinished, not only in the heart and hand of the playwright, but also in performance. A few scenes even appear improvised without any clear intent, and unfortunately the very first scene of the play is one of these. This would be easily pardonable if Igloo exercised their customary largess in transforming the ordinary into the epic. Tirabassi's performance surely comes a long way in this direction, but swims upstream in a script that provides nowhere to spawn. There must be more to this play than a simple chronicle of whatever happened to Baby Jane. I need to know what that is. I need to know how to live with people like Baby Jane and, if necessary, to learn how to live without them.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Edward Donahue.

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