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Just Short of a Lofty Goal

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En Mortem

Flush Puppy Productions

at Prop Thtr

Sean Graney has always had a problematic relationship with reality--or at least the kind of reality that's become the default mode of theater. Embarrassed, he says, by the straight-ahead emotional outpourings that actors often use to depict "truth," as a director he's pushed his adventurous band of Hypocrites to sport artifice like a loud suit. Their clownish Cherry Orchard and hallucinatory Rhinoceros had a hip, giddy immediacy that proved how honest a performance can be when it admits its own hokum. On the other hand, few evenings in the theater have seemed more forced and unconvincing than their cartoonish Ajax.

Last year, when Graney wrote his first play, he resolved his continuing struggle to release truth through fakery. In The 4th Graders Present an Unnamed Love-Suicide he imposed the pageantry, the huge passions, and the declamatory style of Greek tragedy on a band of contemporary ten-year-olds supposedly performing a play written by a classmate who killed himself.

Graney intended The 4th Graders to be performed by children, an idea as preposterous--what do fourth graders know of murder, suicide, and obsessive love?--as it is apt: who else but children are tender enough to experience tragedy every day? He settled for a cast of adults, and the results were electrifying, somehow elevating playground squabbles to mythic levels. The true and the fake were rolled up into one impossibly contradictory reality so bold it could only be accepted or rejected on its own bewildering terms.

The 4th Graders was a 45-minute controlled explosion that created a new form of theater: children's tragedy. One hopes Graney will emulate his Greek predecessors and write a long series in this genre--and cast real children. But in his second play, En Mortem, he's invented an equally contradictory and bewildering reality that offers even greater riches than the first, and he's allowed himself a full 90 minutes. Here four of the lead characters in The 4th Graders are now young adults: the tender and vulnerable Johnny, ever in search of purity; his introspective, despairing girlfriend, Rachel; the wounded and bullying Mike Rice; and his straight-shooting girlfriend, Starryeyes. Graney has stripped them to their underwear and sequestered them in an overheated motel room, though he never hints at why they might have ended up there.

The slim plot focuses on a tryst between Johnny and Starryeyes and its effect on their relationships--and on Johnny's failing attempts to live in a state of innocence. But while The 4th Graders was mostly action, the characters in En Mortem do almost nothing except talk, complaining about the heat and about how complicated and sordid their young lives have become. Moreoever, their speech is peculiar: simple declaratory sentences peppered with incongruous references and orchestrated into a goofy kind of blank verse. Rachel explains her looming psychological breakdown in these words: "So a bunch of the other parts in me in this chain either don't turn / Or they slow down / Or turn wrong / Like an ellipse / A bifocal ellipse / Instead of circle / Smooth and even like." Every now and then the strange talk stops long enough for a young girl mauled by a bear to skip into the room and host a tea party for the guilt-ridden animal who killed her.

Like The 4th Graders, this play is saturated with a kind of ironic lyricism. Every moment of poetic fancy is weighed down with pedestrian trivialities, and profound thoughts are not only expressed in blunt language but tend to appear at odd times. After the oafish Mike Rice has repeatedly pounded on the room's broken "air-conditioning machine," for example, his fury rising with every unsuccessful attack, Johnny says, "I think we are all born innocent." While Graney certainly exploits the humor of the scene, he also pushes for something deeper. "We get corrupted by anything outside ourselves," Johnny continues. "Anything but love." And suddenly the ludicrous image of Mike Rice standing on a chair and banging away at an air conditioner becomes an icon of human corruption--he's the epitome of a man filled with "anything but love." Immediately afterward Rachel admonishes Johnny, "Close up your undies / Your little bishop is poking out." Johnny's own source of corruption is on display in a moment all the more disconcerting for the childish way Rachel describes it.

Graney builds his entire play out of moments too naive to be taken seriously, too openhearted to be ignored. He fashions a theatrical experience that rings true because it's admittedly manufactured and because the playwright's heart can be heard beating beneath the lines. The key lies in his unadorned language: the characters seem to speak straight from their cores. Even the blustery, exaggerated Mike Rice eventually admits that, like Johnny, he feels profoundly impure: he talks at length about the guilt he felt after masturbating in a gas station restroom while thinking about the woman and five-year-old girl he saw at a public pool.

In the past director Joanie Schultz has shown a keen ear for language. Her masterful 2002 staging of Michael John Garces's Acts of Mercy captured the subtle rhythms of a script written almost entirely in sentence fragments. With that production her actors seemed to be following David Mamet's famed direction to "just say the words," but here she gives Graney's language short shrift, creating emotionally naturalistic scenes at the expense of the script's lyricism. Too often this combination of heightened emotion and elevated language results in something that feels like melodrama, especially in the scenes between Johnny and Rachel: Aaron Reichert and Maritza Cervantes favor emotional outpourings of the sort Graney has spent his career avoiding. Characters who describe themselves as "bifocal ellipses" are not guided by the usual mental processes. Johnny and Rachel's quarrels consistently ring false because such an effort has been made to make them true to life.

Salena Hanrahan and John Marszalek as Starryeyes and Mike Rice fare better, largey because their characters are more comical. Marszalek is particularly entertaining, a skillful combination of buffoonish machismo and genuine menace. His stylized delivery and abrupt emotional shifts in the speech about masturbation come closest to Graney's alluring vision. But often the emphasis on this couple's humorous side disrupts the script's delicate balance between the ridiculous and the philosophical. The two couples seem to be in different plays, and no coherent stage world emerges.

In between these two worlds the little girl and the bear frolic. Johnny alone can see them for they embody the innocence he craves. Although they provide some of the evening's gentlest humor--the melancholy bear finds a moment of contentment in a cup of imaginary tea--their comings and goings seem arbitrary. At the same time their symbolism is obvious. En Mortem would be richer without them.

Capturing Graney's unique and demanding play, brimming with contradictions and incongruities, would be a daunting task for any company. Flush Puppy's production is entertaining and at times arresting, but it hasn't captured the slippery connection he makes between falsehood and truth. It's a connection Graney's spent a decade perfecting--perhaps he's his own best director.

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