70 SCENES OF HALLOWEEN
There are those who believe that every work of art--every painting, every novel, every play--has its own true structure, and that the artist's job is to create a work that comes as close as humanly possible to that work's ideal form. These people don't really live in the late 20th century. Their bodies are here, but their minds are stuck in some more sheltered time when people weren't constantly bombarded with bewildering reminders of just how many different ways there are of living one's life.
Then there are people like playwright Jeffrey Jones, who in 70 Scenes of Halloween gleefully replays essentially the same scene--young suburban couple Jeff and Joan hang out at home on Halloween--over and over again. Sixty-six times to be exact, the evening I saw it. Each time the details are varied--order of events, point of view, even the characters. The tone of the scenes also changes--some scenes are somber, some are poetic, and others are quite funny. All of which is enough to disturb any sense we may have of what's happening between Jeff and Joan or what the play's about.
In one scene they scream at each other across the length of their house. In another they speak to each other with the anesthetized contentment of TV addicts. In yet another, cartoonish ghosts gambol around the house while the two talk.
Eventually the scenes begin to contradict one another. Joan, murdered in one of them by a masked madman who looks like he just stepped out of the movie Halloween, is up and about in the next. But by this point it's apparent to all but the least attentive or most resistant that these contradictions aren't mistakes, that they're quite intentional--even the point.
The press materials refer to 70 Scenes as a cubist work, an apt analogy. Like Picasso and Braque, Jones doesn't present a coherent, readily identifiable work with a beginning, middle, and end--in fact, everything about his play militates against this, including his insistence in the script that the scenes be "recombined for each new production." Rather he presents a number of similar stories, told from as many perspectives and in as many ways as he can cram into two hours.
In the hands of a humorless or academic playwright such an avant-garde premise could lead to a pretty tiresome evening. Happily, Jones is witty and inventive enough to make his play far more meaningful than a mere intellectual exercise. It helps that he has a great gift for portraying the million mundane, absolutely hilarious ways couples have of driving each other crazy and a marvelous ear for the way contemporary couples communicate--or fail to. It also helps that he's capable of writing scenes of great emotional depth and honesty, as when Jeff, in a wrenching moment, suddenly admits that he's having an affair.
Director Greg Allen also deserves credit for making this play fly. Quite at home with its many moods--comic, reflective, absurd, angry, melancholy, silly--he makes each short scene seem like a world unto itself, a gift he displayed earlier this year when he directed several of Beckett's shorter plays for the Splinter Group.
It's hardly surprising that Allen's so at home with short scenes given that he's had four years and 11 months of practice, cowriting and codirecting the 30 short Neo-Futurist plays that make up each weekly edition of his long-running brainchild Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. What is surprising is how well the Neo-Futurist aesthetic--"We do not aim to 'suspend the audience's disbelief' but to create a world where the stage is a continuation of daily life"--works with Jones's play. From the moment the lights come up on Chet Grissom shouting to Susan Booth offstage, Jeff and Joan feel like real people facing a crisis in their nine-year marriage.
By Allen's own admission, 70 Scenes was one of the inspirations for Too Much Light, which makes it something of a proto-Neo-Futurist play. Still, I would never have guessed that Too Much Light's freewheeling chaos would have prepared Allen so well for Jones's more calculated absurdism.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.