TALES OF THE LOST FORMICANS
As flies to wanton boys. . . . --King Lear
If you were lucky enough to have seen Scott McPherson's Marvin's Room when it premiered at the Goodman Theatre Studio a little over a year ago, you probably remember what a hapless bunch of losers the characters in that play were. Marvin himself is a bedridden wraith who gets a little color in his face only when he's choking on the Yahtzee dice he likes to swallow. Aunt Ruth has an "electronic anesthetizer" that controls her chronic back pain but also activates the garage door. Bessie, who's spent her adult life nursing Marvin and Ruth, has just been diagnosed with leukemia. And Bessie's long-lost sister Lee is a tightly wound single mother with one boy who won't stop reading and another who's been making pretty good progress, actually, since they took him off the Thorazine.
Everybody's a mess, in short: Victims of a Kennedy-esque destiny without a compensatory Kennedy-esque sense of grandeur. Normal folks in hell. These are the good people to whom bad things happen.
I was reminded of Marvin, Ruth, Bessie, Lee, and the others when I saw the new Lifeline Theatre production of Constance Congdon's play Tales of the Lost Formicans. Like McPherson, Congdon gives us an average American family in an average state of entropy. Dad's got Alzheimer's; Mom's got Dad; and their grown daughter Cathy has got custody of her teenaged son Eric, who's got serious difficulty adapting to his parents' divorce. Cathy and Eric have moved in with Mom and Dad for a while.
A normal hell--just like in Marvin's Room.
But where McPherson's horrors are presented on a shit-happens basis, as inexplicable phenomena, Congdon offers a cleanly reasoned explanation for hers: aliens from outer space. Invisible to all but the audience and their flakiest victims, these otherworldlings in Ray-Bans and lab coats take over the stage every so often--offering lectures on the religious significance of household items, freezing or even rewinding people's lives, filching wallets. It's the space creatures who trigger Dad's terrifying forgetfulness. They hide his coffee; they steal hours from his days, days from his life, words from his vocabulary. In one simultaneously absurd and awful passage, an alien asks Dad for directions, then tries to wipe his memory clean of the encounter by simply wiping his memory clean.
Aliens are as good an explanation as any, when you think about it. I mean, nobody can say for sure that they don't cause Alzheimer's disease--or lost wallets, for that matter--and there's something oddly reassuring about an answer that implies that these things are essentially beyond our control. Congdon rejects the false optimism of science: the idea that there are solutions for our problems and we can find them. She posits the fatalism of the supermarket tabloid instead. Yes, America! she says. Martians run your lives! The Apollo moon shot was a government hoax and John Kennedy was Abraham Lincoln's karmic twin! It's all part of a plan to which you never were and never will be privy! So just give it up! Tabloids may fudge the facts, but they get at the big truth of our helplessness. Our complete, pathetic, uncomprehending ineffectuality. Congdon's play is about that truth.
Naturally, the only one really acquainted with the truth here is crazy: a sweet, buggy, tortured fellow named Jerry, who's made tabloid reality his personal gospel. Though Dad gets dim intimations of an invisible presence, he never attains full revelation. And the others haven't a clue, committed as they are to the idea that they can influence what happens to them. The fools.
Congdon's written an insidious little satire that seems to kid urban myths but ends up using them to express a dark, dark sense of how our lives work. It isn't an especially original approach; Marvin's Room aside, Tales of the Lost Formicans bears easy comparison to plays by American pop surrealists like Jeffrey Jones, Len Jenkins, Mac Wellman, and the young Sam Shepard. Read Wellman's 1985 anthology, Theatre of Wonders, and you'll see exactly where it is Congdon's coming from.
Still, she deploys this avant formula with a good wit, as well as an empathy her peers can't seem to muster: where Wellman and friends are very often aloof to the point of contempt, or anticonventional to the point of incoherence, Congdon treats her characters with blithe but apparently genuine affection. Her narrative is perfectly intelligible, too, for all its extraterrestrial interpolations.
Which makes me sorry that the Lifeline Theatre couldn't do something stronger with it. As directed by Gregg Mierow, the Lifeline production seems ponderous and flat when it should be crisp, flip, and scary. What might have been posed as a contrast between conventional America and its Bizarro World inversion comes across instead as a contrast between the sentimental parts and the funny parts.
This is especially frustrating in view of the talent Lifeline and Mierow have put onstage. Nothing less than astounding a while back--in the Organic Theater production of Maria Irene Fornes's The Conduct of Life--Dorothy Milne is nothing less than fascinating here, offering a portrait of Mom as a complete human being rubbed raw by endless assaults on her straightforward sensibilities. Phil Ridarelli is amusingly, at times complicatedly, compulsive as prophetic Jerry. And Laura T. Fisher--who improvises so bravely with Cardiff Giant--demonstrates that she can do better still with a prepared script, playing Cathy's sex-starved sidekick Judy.
The only real gap in the ensemble is a crucial one: Deborah Leydig was probably cast as Cathy, the divorced mother, because of her all-American good looks. But she carries the white-bread image into her acting, as well. Leydig's Cathy is soft, bland, and flavorless. She registers emotions in her face, as a succession of standardized responses, while her body remains more or less inert. Tentative. It's especially bad when she's pretending to be stoned. Leydig's lack of physical ease not only limits our understanding of her character, it contributes heavily to our sense of this production as a dulled-out version of what Congdon wanted us to see.
Lifeline's weekend kid's show, Bunnicula, isn't dulled-out. It's cuted-up. Adapted by James Sie from the book by Deborah and James Howe, about a vampire bunny rabbit who sucks the living juices out of carrots and tomatoes, the show is clever and well performed but much too snuggly to be really fun. The best children's stories, from Grimm to Roald Dahl, are the ones that refuse to shy away from their grislier implications; obviously, there's nothing truly grisly about a bunny with a taste for vegetable cocktails--but director Sandy Snyder might have played more with the mock horror, the pleasant frights that make the concept intriguing in the first place. Instead she's got Lester Palmer, as the narrator/dog, acting so reassuringly mealymouthed he can hardly talk. All I know is that my boy Max and every other kid in the room came alive when a long-fanged shadow puppet skulked menacingly across the back wall.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzanne Plunkett.