By Justin Hayford
Precision has long been Bruce Norris's strong suit. As an actor he's meticulous both in his physical grace and in his handling of language. As a director he runs the tightest of ships, as anyone can attest who saw his fastidious adaptation of Joe Orton's messy screenplay Up Against It for the Lookingglass Theatre Company six years ago. Even his everyday speech is so pointed you'd swear he's downloaded some sort of editing software into his brain.
But it's as a playwright that he's shown perhaps the greatest precision. In his first play, The Actor Retires--actually a monologue with a few supporting characters--he fired a quiverful of barbs at the hypocritical, self-aggrandizing world of professional theater. In his recent The Vanishing Twin, which he also directed for Lookingglass, he laced a deliciously indulgent satire of gothic horror with rock and roll, staging the whole outrageous two-hour affair so scrupulously that it flew by in no time.
Perhaps it's only natural that in his newest play Norris should be drawn to the courtroom, where every word is weighed and debated. But The Infidel--given a thoughtful premiere by director Anna D. Shapiro--isn't the usual courtroom drama. The reason is another of Norris's quirks: a fascination with life's second tier. True, the play is about a state supreme court justice, Garvey, convicted of stalking his former mistress after leaving her threatening telephone messages and setting fire to her car. But Norris hasn't set the play before a mighty bench, instead tucking it away in a sickly institutional room where a long-suffering magistrate named Moss, Garvey's former colleague, oversees a pathetic, perfunctory administrative hearing. Norris's treatment makes grand questions of guilt and innocence moot; Moss must simply determine whether Garvey deserves an early release after serving just 14 months of his sentence.
But paradoxically Norris's deliberate downplaying gives his play higher stakes. It begins with a long exchange between Garvey and Moss, seated at opposing tables far across the stage from each other, old friends trying to find a way to navigate this awkward predicament. Garvey is coming apart at the seams, though he makes every effort to conceal his fear and indignation, chatting amiably if a touch aimlessly. In this antiseptic room, under unforgiving fluorescent lights, he's as exposed as a patient in surgery; the comfort he might draw from a courtroom's staid dignity is not available. His sudden mental lapses, when he feels bits of his life are being mysteriously spliced out, don't help calm his nerves. Nor does the video camera that projects his face onto a huge television monitor a few feet behind him. He's ready to blow.
But Norris delays that explosion as long as possible. He first lets Garvey linger in a delusion of invulnerability. In his expertly tailored suit, he displays the kind of verbal wit and intellectual acumen that must have made him a renowned jurist. The hearing is absurd, he contends, because he's being asked to put on a performance. He's expected to seem penitent, to engage in degrading histrionics in exchange for his liberty, but he won't oblige. When Moss asks simply, "Are you sorry?" Garvey can only confess he's sorry he's been unable to contribute his jurisprudence during his incarceration.
Norris creates a charismatic and troubling figure in Garvey, played with great subtlety and pathos by Mike Nussbaum. He's so charming, so wise, so well controlled that it seems he can't be a threat to anyone. But over the play's 90 minutes his facade begins to crack, and a vicious, desperate, unrepentant menace shows through.
To accomplish this transformation Norris employs two tactics, one of which is less than successful. First, he shows us the man's behavior outside the administrative hearing in a series of flashbacks--the mental lapses to which Garvey repeatedly succumbs. We see him pulled over for a routine traffic violation, then sitting in a neighborhood bar waiting for his mistress. Good-natured but edgy, at times he chats in so many directions at once he seems poised on the brink of senility. In the barroom scene, he's so at ease with the bartender that he explains in great detail the dissatisfaction he feels with his marriage, his contempt for the wife he no longer desires, and his unnerving delight in embracing his own misogyny.
The flashbacks create a lively counterpoint to the sober hearing but tend to defuse the play's tension. At times they seem superfluous, providing little information that affects the play's outcome. At other times they seem like overkill: Garvey's explaining his misogynist impulses in detail robs the character of mystery as well as a good deal of the sympathy he might have acquired earlier in the play.
The second tactic works better: Norris strands Garvey in the hearing, listening silently to the testimony of others. When his wife, a successful psychologist, pleads for his release, most of what she says seems oddly off point--but Garvey's stoic indifference to her tells the real story of their relationship. Staring blankly into space, he refuses to acknowledge her presence. And the few times when he does address her, correcting her tiniest inaccuracies, we feel keenly his misogynist rage, making his long explanation of it in the flashback particularly unnecessary.
Although Norris's plotting during the hearing is at times imprecise, allowing the action to stall on a few occasions, he builds to a masterful climax. When Alma, Garvey's former mistress, finally appears at the hearing, her presence seems to have no effect on him even though her attorney reads a horrifying litany of the savage acts Garvey committed in his deluded attempt to win her love. Garvey's backed into a corner only in the play's final moments, when a bit of evidence surfaces from a most unlikely source. Broadsided--like the audience--he lashes out in a monstrous display, an expertly orchestrated finale that Nussbaum plays to horrifying effect.
There's still work to be done on The Infidel. In addition to streamlining the plot, Norris needs to give his secondary characters a greater stake in the situation--especially Moss, who remains largely unaffected throughout. Although Robert Breuler's portrayal of the levelheaded Moss is captivating, as the character is written he doesn't stand to lose anything, except perhaps his respect for his colleague. If Moss went through a trial of his own as he presided over Garvey's, the work would have a greater sense of balance.
But The Infidel is bold. In defiance of our culture's propensity to see sexual deviants as shadowy outsiders with an inborn criminality, Norris gives us every reason to fall in love with a brutal misogynist. It makes for a disturbing evening--and surely this piece will be hated by many. But given the irrelevance of so much contemporary American playwriting, we need more unsettling plays, the kind that force us to rethink our moral positions.
Ted Bales was one of Chicago's most gifted comedic actors, a gentle and caring soul, and by his own admission a pathological liar. About ten years ago he appeared on Oprah's show to confess his pathology--at a time when he was the treasurer for the young, financially beleaguered Neo- Futurists. Later he defended his integrity by telling friends he was lying about being a pathological liar.
One thing Bales never lied about, however, was the precariousness of his health. He suffered for years from primary pulmonary hypertension, and on February 10 it claimed his life at the age of 35. In his final days he insisted that no funeral or memorial service be held in his honor, in part explaining why word of his death has been slow to get out.
Bales's unique performance style was based on a dry ennui counterpointed by razor-sharp timing. He achieved his greatest renown as the smart-aleck priest in the long-running Party, reprising the role off-Broadway. Last year he made his final Chicago appearance in a touring production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), a show that closed when Bales's health took a turn for the worse. Those lucky enough to have caught his last performance witnessed an artist at the peak of his form, hardly raising an eyebrow yet keeping his audience in paroxysms of giddy delight.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.