LIFE AND LIMB
Tight & Shiny Productions
at the Greenview Arts Center
Tight & Shiny Productions--a shoestring gypsy theater company currently residing at the Greenview Arts Center--has made a career out of doing kick-ass versions of little-known works of well-known playwrights. Its production last season of David Mamet's two-person drama The Woods was a revelation, thanks in no small part to the extraordinary work of the husband-and-wife acting team Tim and Carri Sullens. If he sets his mind to it Mamet can write living, breathing, three-dimensional female characters who do more than facilitate the plot or underscore his more Neanderthal notions of human sexuality.
Sadly, the company's current, rather flaccid production--Life and Limb, an early work by Keith Reddin--contains no such revelations. In fact, it has so many dead spots and fumbled dramatic moments that it's sometimes hard to believe this play was written by the man responsible for that quintessential send-up of the go-go, gimme-gimme 80s, Big Time, and for last season's well-crafted adaptation of Bulgakov's Black Snow at the Goodman.
Life and Limb, first produced in 1984, fairly reeks of early-play syndrome. Packed tightly with clever, interesting, but for the most part never fully explored ideas--the comedy of love, the cruelty of capitalism, the emptiness of American consumer culture--it feels like several very different plays forced to occupy the same stretch of stage time.
Part of Life and Limb wants to be a righteous and angry examination of war and the difficulties veterans, especially disabled veterans, face when they return home. Franklin Clagg, returning from Korea after losing his arm in the pointless battle of Pork Chop Hill, nearly loses his wife, Effie, and his home--before finding work (irony of ironies) at a company that manufactures artificial limbs.
Another part of Life and Limb wants to be a more absurdist work, using humor to expose the soft underbelly of American civilization during the Eisenhower years. Reddin spends a great deal of time showing what lives of shallow desperation Franklin and Effie live. She spends all her free time at the movies. His greatest aspiration is to one day be able to afford to buy a TV. When the two of them die, their hell is an eternity of meaningless menial work--doing laundry, making pot holders.
Yet another part of Life and Limb wants to be a heartfelt relationship drama about two working-class stiffs who go through hell together, figuratively and literally, yet remain in love with each other.
At some point these various plays start canceling one another out. The comedy undercuts the sincere portions of the play--we don't always know whether we're supposed to laugh at or with the play's protagonists--and makes some of Reddin's more heavy-handed imagery seem mawkish. In the first scene Franklin shows his love for Effie by having a big heart with his and her name tattooed on his right arm. A scene later he loses that arm in Korea. Oooooh, I can hear high school English teachers across America coo, symbolism.
The more serious elements of the play--Franklin's incredibly sadistic boss, the poignant moments when Franklin tries to deal with being disabled and with losing the woman he loves--take the joy out of the comedy. Who can laugh at the idea that there are K marts in hell when you know that Franklin and Effie miss each other desperately?
Reddin shouldn't take all the blame for this misfired production. Director Tim Sullens certainly does his part. He isn't untalented--his version of Wallace Shawn's Marie and Bruce several years ago was the production that persuaded me that Tight & Shiny was a company to watch. It's just that in tackling a play with a multiple-personality disorder he chose to deal with only one aspect of it--to the detriment of everything else.
Taking a cue from the play's setting--New York in the 1950s--Sullens directs Life and Limb as if it belonged entirely in the tradition of Actors Studio American naturalism, alongside On the Waterfront, Marty, and A Streetcar Named Desire.
By encouraging his actors to deliver realistic, albeit compelling and absolutely believable, performances, Sullens flattens out both the comedy and the moments of heightened reality in Reddin's script. Scenes that Thomas Babe, the play's first New York director, argued in his production notes should be played at an "overall comic pace" poke along, and jokes that are meant to momentarily lift the show fall flat.
In fact, the only time the play really hums along is during the conversations early in the play between Franklin (David Wagner) and Effie (Heidi Huber), in which Reddin gets to show off his ear for dialect. These few short scenes are hints of his future brilliance.