We look to the theater for assurance that the road to empowerment is laid out there before us, but some of the greatest plays are about miserably lost, hopeless people. Think late Eugene O'Neill. Think Hedda Gabler or any of Ibsen's darker works. Think Oedipus or Hamlet.
Now add Rude Guerrilla's production of Road and the Hunger Artists' The Houseguests. Though wildly divergent in subject and tone, both end with a group of characters huddled together, saying the same word. In Road, Jim Cartwright's play about an oddball collection of drunks, derelicts and assorted fuckups adrift in a small northern English town, the word is escape. In The Houseguests,Harry Kondoleon's mordant comedy about two horrifyingly ruptured marriages, the word is love.
It's clear from everything that precedes these final images that—barring a miracle—no character in Roadwill ever escape, and none in The Houseguests will ever love. They don't want to. They're content to stay in the same stagnant town, relationship or mental spider web.
The Royal National Theater picked Roadas one of the most influential plays of the 20th century. Based on this production, it's hard to see why. I couldn't understand a bloody word for the first hour and a half. Apparently, director Renee Gallo chose authenticity over intelligibility, opting for accents that mimic those in the English slag-heap town where Roadis set. Kudos on wanting to get it right, but how about communicating the playwright's ideas?
Roadis a series of vignettes in which six actors play approximately 35 characters, none of whom is going to be clinking teacups with Martha Stewart any time soon. The only recurring character is Scullery (Vince Campbell), the biggest drunk in a town packed with drunks. Scullery is the Virgil of the play, introducing us to a range of pathetic characters, from Eleanor Rigby types stealing milk from cats' saucers to young men dying in agony from unknown diseases. You get lots of drinking, attempts at shagging, a wheelbarrow of verbal abuse. If there's one commonality on this bleak stretch of road, it's that all characters appear cognizant that the place that sustains them—the filthy streets and alcohol-soaked walls—is also killing them.
There are moments of brilliance in Cartwright's script, and the cast is occasionally able to match them. Scott Barber's monologue as a skinhead boxer is riveting, and the rest of his disparate characters all have a hint of that lit dynamite in them.
But the play's final scene is the most memorable and harrowing. Two blokes (played by Barber and Harris) have picked up a couple of birds (Brenda Kenworthy and Julie Jagusiak). The obligatory seduction attempts, cool rejections and needy rapprochements ensue, but things take a big shift after Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness" is played. Four meaty monologues follow, with the men crucifying England as an old, cruel twat in the sea and pining for freedom, which they think lies in some old West cowboy wet dream. The women go deeper, wishing for something purer on this wasted stretch of road, yearning for magic and miracles in a time when everything has been made ordinary before their eyes. The scene ends with all four huddled in a coach, urgently reciting their mantra, "somehow a somehow a somehow—might escape!" until silence descends and lights come up, once more, on the road. It's a powerful, poignant way to end a play that spares no attempt to reveal the utter vulgarity of these people's lives.
If Roadrevels in coarseness to show the cruelty of its characters, The Houseguestsrelies on dazzling acerbic wit. Think Edward Albee's George and Martha tossed into a Pinteresque home of lurking menace and you get a taste for the sophisticated cruelty of Kondoleon's play.
The opening line sets the course. Vera (Melissa Petro) and John (Ethan M. Rogers) are lounging about their summer retreat, examining crossword puzzles. Vera causally asks John if he knows how much she despises him. He guesses that she hates him the way bomb victims must hate the sky. She says that's not a tenth of her hatred: "I hate you with an intensity known chiefly among the fanatically religious who know no joy greater than to imagine the center of their being nailed to the mutilated palm of the Savior."
Kondoleon, who produced a brief blaze of glory that was snuffed out by AIDS before he hit 40, laces his script with such choice, well-written insults. The writing is so excellent that it overshadows the fact that, plotwise and ideawise, there isn't a whole lot here.That isn't helped by Deanna Keefe's bloodless direction, something that manifests itself technically—lights go up, lights go down—and in the flat performances. Until the second act, no one seems to be having much fun on stage. In a dark comedy about viciously unmannered people, there has to be a certain perverse lan in the delivery of these lines.
Basically, Vera and John are wickedly unhappy and casually plot to kill their goody-goody houseguests, Gayle (Jami McCoy) and Manny (Chris Fowler). But after Gayle professes her love to Vera by sucking her toes and Manny gets psycho-slapped after memories of child abuse are dredged up by John's homosexual advance, the four decide—based on Vera tasting the bitter savor of each of the other's tears—to swap partners.
The second act finds all four penniless and stricken with some physical malady, whether blindness, deafness or broken bones. At some point, Vera—the cruelest and coldest of them—is awakened to the need to forgive and to love, but it's a false, convenient awakening. Too much bile has risen and too much invective has been issued for us to buy Vera's sudden transformation. It feels like an easy way for a playwright to wrap up his story.
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Still, Vera urges her three wounded compatriots to give up their ambivalence about life and really live. She admits that she has grown up afraid of love and encourages everyone to face that final taboo and, in unison, to say "love."
They do so, timidly and fearfully, which is immediately followed by the sound of thunder and lightning and a blackout. The supernatural atmospheric response recalls what one of the characters in Roadmost yearns for: magic and miracles, in a time when everything seems so ordinary.
By plays' end, all that is solid has melted into the air. But we're not left with nothing; even so bitter a philosopher as Marx knew that people, however fucked up, are the engines of their own resurrections and "make history." We're left instead with the clear sense that some people—the majority, maybe—choose to not make history, to remain victims, to choose in every minute of every day to stay fucked up.
Road at Empire Theater, 200 n. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 547-4688. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. $12-$15;Bring a can of food and get one clam knocked off.The Houseguests at Hunger Artists Theatre, 699-A S. State College Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 680-6803. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. Through June 15. $12-$15.