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It's hard to imagine a major playwright would care about a fledgling theater company staging one of his lesser-known plays. But when David Rabe heard the Garage Theater Co. was interested in his 1982 black comedy Goose & Tomtom, he asked his agent to contact the company so they could talk.
Through e-mails and phone conversations, Rabe has offered director Eric Hamme the bizarre piece—a rare opportunity for Hamme's the Garage Theater Co., a group of OCC and Long Beach State alums with a mere handful of production credits.
But it's also great for Rabe, a chance to redeem the hairy little troll of his impressive stage oeuvre. The debut New York production of Goose & Tomtom was so bad that Rabe disavowed it and tried to kill it before it opened. His anxiety proved reasonable: when the curtain fell, the play received savage reviews.
"I always believed in this play, but never received a production that was ever really right," Rabe said from his Connecticut home. "It's never really had its day and maybe never will. But when I hear of companies doing it, I'm intrigued. They've invested their lives in this, and they see something in the material they want to work on."
Rabe hasn't had a major stage hit in a while, but in the early '70s, there was no bigger American playwright. A medical corpsman during the Vietnam War, Rabe recalled that experience for three searing plays that won nearly every major award: Sticks and Bones, The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel and Streamers. He continued to write, and while some of his plays played big (most notably Hurlyburly), Rabe has lately made his biggest marks in film. Along with adaptations of his own plays, Rabe also wrote or co-wrote Casualties of Warand The Firm.
Reading Goose & Tomtom helps you appreciate why so many productions go wrong. It's melting-watch surreal, though it begins prosaically enough with a couple of small-time jewel thieves, Goose and Tomtom. They bicker about everything from how tough they are to who ripped them off. They barricade themselves in their apartment to avoid other crooks, plot revenge strategies, and share their fears about green witches and secretive ghosts who turn them into frogs. And then things start getting really weird. From Keystone Kops-like slapstick and dime-store detective-novel shenanigans, the play veers into the surreal, with kidnapped poetesses talking about the awful wisdom of life; walls crumbling; and hunchbacked, machine gun- and scythe-toting figures reciting an apocalyptic tale of a people living in harmony and bliss only to be destroyed by barbarians who scatter the inhabitants across the world like "vomit from the mouths of fevered gods."
Rabe calls the play a fairy tale but says few productions truly capture the mythical resonance.
"It took me a long, long time after writing it to figure out how to do it, and I feel that there are pitfalls in this play that the best-intentioned theater can wander into," Rabe said.
The main obstacle, Rabe said, is the relationship between Goose and Tomtom. "The way the play has usually been produced is that the characters are bosom buddies, peas in a pod who have their differences but are amiable toward each other."
Over time, Rabe has come to know his characters hate each other. It's a revelation, transforming the dynamic of the play from two guys against the world to two guys against each other.
"Most productions feel that the enmity is outside these characters, that they're worried about other people," Rabe said. "But if that's how it's staged, it doesn't hold up."
Rabe said that although he knows nothing about the Garage Theater Co., he gets the feeling his play is in good hands. "These guys seemed to have the right dynamic when I first talked to them," he said. "They were already headed in the right direction."
This marks just the third major production for the Garage Theater Co., which, Hamme said, wants to produce "edgier" plays, focusing on the lesser-known works of known playwrights. "There are a lot of companies that produce recognizable plays, but a lot of playwrights have good work that isn't done as often," Hamme said.
In that respect, Goose & Tomtomcertainly fits—and it's harder to tell who's most appreciative in this unique dialogue between known writer and unknown theater.
"This is what you hope for with a play that hasn't been as celebrated in the public arena," Rabe said. "You hope that somewhere out there, there's someone who connects to the material and feels strongly enough about it to do it. That's very gratifying."
Goose & Tomtom by the Garage Theater Co. at the Edison Theatre, 213 E. Broadway, Long Beach, (562) 433-8337; firstname.lastname@example.org. Opens Thurs., 8 p.m. Call for exact dates and times. Through Aug. 10. $15.