A NERVOUS DEADMAN and
Wild Onion Theatre Company
at No Exit Cafe
Wild Onion Theatre's production of Mark Dalton's one-act play Little Daze can be described only as environmental theater. Jimmy Durante used to say, "Everybody wants to get into the act!" but this act wants to get into everybody. To that end it encroaches upon its audience's territory with an audacity unthinkable in a television set.
Having a character enter by the street door of the performance space is a nice start, but not really innovative--an actor in one Igloo production made his entrance through a second-story window. It's obvious that this old man, talking at theatrical volume to two shopping bags (one representing his wife--"Shut up, you old bag!"--and the other his mistress) is an actor speaking lines. The dimensions start shifting when the waitress from whom we accepted coffee ten minutes before begins interacting with the bag man in what must be dialogue, since she is now an actress. Then the people at the next table are rousted and one of them is recognized by the waitress as her imaginary childhood friend--which means they must be actors too. And here we've been sitting next to them for the last half hour, thinking them to be part of the audience. By intermission, every word spoken by every person in the room has become important, because we never know how significant it might be in the next moment.
The staging of Little Daze is a remarkable display of infiltration. That very factor, dazzling as it is, frequently distracts us from Dalton's tale of Monica, a harried waitress debating the merits of permanent regression. Faced with the care and feeding of a conglomerate of customer obnoxiousness (played with frightening manic fervor by Paul Quinn), she calls upon her fantasy companion for comfort. He appears, bearing familiar games and memories of idyllic times, offering to take her away from all this harsh reality--if she chooses. Cynthia Marie brings a childlike winsomeness to the role of Monica, and Scot Casey, as Bub, is an appealing playmate with just enough dark-side menace to make the lady's final decision a wise one.
Sharing the program with Little Daze is A Nervous Deadman, also by Dalton, a synesthetic journey through the stygian depths, envisioned here as a candle-lit bistro in which one can never locate the bathroom. Coming in from the cold (in this case, the cold of Glenwood Avenue) and blundering about by capricious match light and the even more capricious flashlight of jeering denizens of the darkness, our protagonist, Zero, attempts to find the woman of his dreams before all his worldly possessions--body, dreams, nightmares--are stolen by the habitues of this most unsavory neighborhood. "A nude with no face--abstract, stripped, and silent" is what he seeks, and his refusal to accept any facsimile is what leads to his eventual deconstruction. In the role of Zero, Jon Kellam exhibits a nice Dustin Hoffman-style disorientation, while Brett Lundquist-Paesel is a suitably iconic femme fatale.
Playwright Dalton has constructed these two plays with delicate lyricism ("See the glass? . . . no dust. The world is made of dust . . . everywhere but not a trace in here: lucid and clear . . . shallow in the hollow of a lucid goblet"), impish wit ("A Latino lover . . . is good because he's attainable without a visa"), and intricate complexity. Its surrealism comes dangerously close to unraveling into incoherence. Douglas Bryan Bean takes further risks with his pinball-kinetic direction, as do the actors in breaking the wall between the performer and the audience--a wall that has grown more flexible in recent decades but is nonetheless still respected the majority of the time. Little Daze and A Nervous Deadman are dangerously intimate fare, requiring an audience as secure as its creators.