Either Keith Bennett is way smarter than I am, or he's a damn liar. Bennett, who portrays Scottish experimental-theater playwright David Greig in Greig's mindfuck of a play, San Diego(which receives its American premiere Friday at Rude Guerrilla), says it took him two reads to grasp Greig's far-out work.
Bennett obviously learned play analysis at his Mensa meetings because I'm currently on my fourth read of San Diego, and I still don't know what's going on. But I'm absolutely convinced somethingis going on—just don't ask me to explain it.
Searching for the next dead goose reference. Photo by Jay M. Fraley.
Scotland's most prolific playwright and a leading force in the U.K.'s thriving experimental-theater circuit, Greig is so red-hot he was unavailable for a chat because three new plays of his were closing last weekend at the world's biggest theater orgy: the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
By published accounts from the British press (he's yet to make a huge dent in American theater), Greig's work is utterly idiosyncratic and unabashedly violates every standard of conventional linear theater.
That's obvious in reading San Diego, which debuted at the 2003 Fringe. His dialogue crackles with wit and starkly beautiful poetry, and his deeply troubled characters still feel keenly alive in their search for some kind of connection with something greater than themselves. San Diegomay be profane and shocking at times, but it's also very smart and deeply moving.
My struggle in "getting it" is that I'm not sure where it starts, or where it's supposed to be going. But that mightbe Greig's intent. If San Diegois "about" anything, it might be journeys, not destinations. Every main character—hell, even the play itself, which, according to that smarty-pants Bennett, is an exploration of the writer's inner being—is on a quest for something, be it love, God, vengeance or answers. And the play begins and ends—and repeatedly revisits—a British Airways flight landing in the city of San Diego on June 10, 2000.
Maybe it originates from Nigeria. Or maybe it doesn't even exist in the first place.
I do know that the first character we meet is David Greig, who, from an airplane seat, tells the audience he's on his first visit to America and about to land in the city with the highest quality of life, San Diego, one featured in almost no "fictions, films, novels or plays," but is the "unnamed backdrop for several episodes of America's Missing Children."
Greig then omnisciently introduces us to the son of the flight's pilot and his faith-starved wife, who live in San Diego, along with the pilot's daughter, confined to a psychiatric ward in London. The plane lands, and Greig gets lost trying to find the La Jolla Playhouse. He solicits a man holding a dead goose for directions, but, just after realizing that the guy stowed away on the same flight, the playwright is stabbed to death, only to reappear much, much later when his murderer, hell-bent on meeting Paul McCartney (yes, that Paul McCartney) in order to get information on his long-lost mother (she may have sung backup for Wings in the early '70s), discovers Greig in a bar. He demands to know why Greig brought him to San Diego and, unsatisfied with the answers, informs Greig he no longer controls San Diego (or maybe it's San Diego).
Meanwhile, the story oscillates between multiple storylines like a Robert Altman film on meth. We meet British cannibals and Nigerian immigrants, Bedouins and crisis-in-faith nuns, young lovers desperately trying to get to Greenland, and at least five characters named Amy. Plus, there's a gaggle of dead-goose references.
There's no denying the script's helter-skelter feel. And while Greig is highly respected, it's also true that the most common criticism levied against him is that his plays could be better served with longer incubation periods.
But nothing in San Diego suggests Greig is an experimental assembly-line hack. He may write quickly (lately, he's averaging about five new plays per year), but if San Diegois any indication, he also writes incredibly well.
The challenge facing this Rude Guerrilla production (directed by Weekly theater scribe Dave Barton) is in trying to harness the script's undeniably potent energy and to make something that can appear—to at least one reader—indigestible on the page palatable on the stage. At least they have one actor in the cast who gets it.
San Diego at the Empire Theater, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 547-4688; www.rudeguerrilla.org . Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. Through Sept. 21. $10-$20.