at the Athenaeum Theatre
By Justin Hayford
What's happened to plotting in contemporary playwriting? It seems it's gotten lost amid all the innovation over the last century, as the great experimenters in theater have carried out a wholesale slaughter on the concept of plot, at least as it had been prescribed in boulevard comedies and bourgeois melodramas. Once Chekhov and Strindberg arrived on the scene, theatrical stories no longer held fast to the course of conflict, rising action, crisis, climax, and denouement. And by midcentury, that plotless wonder Samuel Beckett would show the world just how dramatic utter immobility could be. These days a by-the-book linear narrative has become almost a liability; theaters prefer to promote their product by ticking off the hot-button issues their plays address (no matter how tangentially) rather than by recounting the stories they tell.
Often eschewing conventional plot for no other reason than to blend in with the times, contemporary playwrights tend to overlook the importance of plotting--creating some kind of arc or unity despite the lack of a traditional story. Beckett exploited the distinction between plot and plotting better than almost any other playwright this century; nothing may happen in Endgame or Waiting for Godot, but it happens by such artful design that by the time the final curtain falls, the most inconsequential opening moments have been developed into powerful conclusions. Like all great playwrights, Beckett never puts anything onstage unless it helps push the play forward toward a meaningful end.
But the great majority of playwrights these days don't even seem to know which direction forward is or why they should care. Instead they seem convinced they need only create a quirky, suitably ironic world--preferably with a hint of menace tucked away in one corner so that they can call their work "serious"--and people it with oddballs whose unusual occupations, singular obsessions, and peculiar speech patterns are meant to substitute for character. That done, they need only think of snappy, irrelevant things for these people to say in scenes that invariably end the moment anyone brings up anything mildly provocative. The result is pointless interaction and precious little action.
Canadian playwright Nick Carpenter's insufferable The Major typifies this trend. In an act of exemplary incompetence, he creates a volatile, highly dramatic situation, then turns his back on it, leaving his characters to flail about on the periphery of the issues he raises like bystanders at a ten-car pileup convinced that their hangnails are the real tragedies.
Carpenter sets his comedy in a high school that's recently been blown up. It seems that Bianca, the school's basketball star and worst chemistry student, mixed just the wrong compounds during her chemistry exam and almost leveled the place. All but a handful of students and teachers were killed, but Bianca emerged without a scratch. So now the survivors are trying to continue their education in the three remaining classrooms, and the army has dispatched Major Latch to investigate Bianca's miraculous new explosive.
In post-Oklahoma City, post-Columbine America, an eviscerated public building full of dead students is a difficult place to start a comedy. For this reason alone Fantod Theatre should have thought twice about this script. But Carpenter doesn't need cultural tragedies to ruin his play--he does quite well all on his own. First and foremost, his setup defies plausibility. Why would the high school continue to hold classes in a bombed-out building? There are clearly other buildings in town, some of which might have been converted into temporary school space. Carpenter could have invented some need for the ruined school to keep its doors open, but instead he asks us to simply accept this nonsensical situation, leaving us to scratch our heads all evening.
A number of urgent stories seem natural offshoots of Carpenter's premise, yet he spends the majority of his time with a horned-up student named Isabelle and her amorous English teacher, Hogg. In endless scenes we see them swooning together while reading Middleton aloud. Since that's all they ever do, we learn nothing about them and have no stake in their relationship. The Major arrives and camps out in their classroom (why would he set up base in a spot where he'll be constantly interrupted?), and soon Isabelle falls for him, spurning her teacher. The teacher feels bad. The Major feels uncomfortable. Meanwhile, receding ever farther into the background is the story it seemed Carpenter wanted to tell, about what might have caused the destruction of this particular school.
Now and then he gets back to it; we see the Major extending a tape measure once or twice, "investigating." He discovers that Isabelle survived the explosion because a brick didn't hit her in the head. He visits the chemistry teacher, Leo, in the hospital, trying to get the formula for the explosive Bianca created. But he winds up talking to the wrong guy and, through a series of wacky misunderstandings, comes to believe that the formula is salt, water, and oxygen--proving that he's no more an explosives expert than Carpenter is a playwright.
The Major also discovers that, just before the blast, the school's headmistress was kneeling under her desk as though she knew the "accidental" explosion was about to happen. Carpenter hardly bothers with how the Major might have discovered this critical fact--"trigonometry," he explains unhelpfully. But at least the playwright seems to have finally stumbled onto a plot element, even a plot twist. The Major never mentions his discovery again, however, and never questions the headmistress. Instead he's off reading poetry, briefly discovering his delight in masochism at Isabelle's hand and convincing himself that he wants to die in an explosion too.
Like so many playwrights, Carpenter fiddles and fusses with a bunch of three-minute scenes but never charts a course through them. Director Jessi D. Hill and her six cast members try to compensate for the play's incoherence by pumping the performances to farcical extremes. But the play isn't a farce--it's hardly even funny--and so the heightened ludicrousness of the production makes an already strained situation feel all the more forced.
It's never quite clear what anything in The Major has to do with anything else in the play--much less in the real world. Ultimately it seems Carpenter asks which is more explosive, passionate poems or homemade bombs? The answer is bombs. And he should know a thing or two about them.