‘Mud,’ ‘Drowning,’ and ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’

I would not be so rash as to affirm that Maria Irene Fornes’s Mud is the worst play I have seen all year. That honor goes more properly to Drowning, the second item on the Fornes double bill, with which the Signature Theatre Company launches its new season devoted to this author. A full season of Fornesiana may well surpass in horror anything in Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell. Over the 36 years that Maria Irene Fornes (henceforward MIF, for brevity’s sake) has been produced hereabouts, few if any have so dependably plumbed the depths of stultifying ineptitude.

MIF was born in Havana and immigrated to New York in 1945 at age 15. This supposed exoticism is part of her mystique; another is having been the protégée of Susan Sontag, who, at the time of MIF’s firstling, Tango Palace (1963), exercised a considerable albeit dubious influence. That MIF resolutely aligned herself with the avant-garde, to the point where in one of her plays the audience had to move through various spaces, may also have moved some viewers and reviewers to rapture.

Mud takes place in thirties middle America, where Mae, the sexually unfulfilled wife of the abjectly impoverished pig farmer Lloyd, keeps ironing a pair of pants that nobody seems to wear. Both spouses are illiterate, but she at least tries to learn; he can barely be dragged to a doctor for the mysterious illness that, among other things, makes him stink. Mae introduces Henry, an older and better-educated man, into the household, but things merely go from bad to worse. A stroke reduces Henry to partial inability to move or speak, and much of the last part of the play features growling, unstoppable drooling, and spastic violence. Though none of it is all that different from what went on before.

As Lloyd, Paul Lazar yells, lurches, lunges, or wallows on the ground as a suitable model for his pigs. As Henry, John Seitz sinks, as called for, steadily lower, as his eventually naked torso is sagging even worse than his determination. Deirdre O’Connell manages miraculously to keep at least her chin above the mud, and uses a dejected monotone to surprisingly touching effect. The misery-breathing set is by Christine Jones, the suitably dismal costuming by Teresa Snider-Stein, the Depression-era grimness by Scott Zeilinski’s lighting. But the depression attendant on sitting through all this drabness and dreariness is strictly MIF’s contribution.

Drowning is very short, totally nonsensical, and certifiably affectless. Three men speak to each other with random opacity, move little or not at all, and are distinguished only by enormous jowls that spread from their cheeks to their shoulders, giving their bald heads a melted-cone shape, somewhat like travesties of sculptures by Medardo Rosso. The playlet itself has no shape whatsoever. Davis Esbjornson’s direction has never impressed me, but with material such as this any direction is powerless.

The Village Voice has trumpeted MIF as “the truest poet of the American theater,” Sam Shepard has pronounced her “the real deal,” and Peter Marks in his Times review calls Drowning a “lovely, enigmatic” play about “tuskless walruses that have evolved into bipeds,” and MIF’s “inventive voice … even more deserving of the Signature treatment” than Guare, Miller, and Shepard. With such criticism it is small wonder that Mud and Drowning, and the downright nauseating “deconstruction” that the Belgian charlatan Ivo von Hove has perpetrated on New York Theatre Workshop’s A Streetcar Named Desire can thrive and proliferate.

In this Streetcar, a functional bath is the only thing that works. Here Blanche and several others take naked baths; here Stanley cries out for Stella to come back to him; here, too, Eunice pushes his head under water several times; and here, in a scene of surpassing ludicrousness, he rapes Blanche. Instead of red silk pajamas, Stanley wears orange spandex ones, and he cannot get into them properly, so for the whole remnant of the play the pants dangle from his shins, under his dangling privates. Blanche, who has just been buggered by a very young Mitch, is also naked, except for a crumpled black sheath that dangles from her neck. So it is dangling orange pajamas that rape a dangling black sheath in a bathtub. And a lot more of that sort of thing as von Hove rapes Tennessee Williams.

‘Mud,’ ‘Drowning,’ and ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’