Invisible Men

I don’t know what in Lee Blessing’s Thief River – the play or the production – left me in a state of confusion. The action takes place interminglingly in 1948, 1973, and 2001. Six actors play twelve characters, some of whom are themselves at different stages and played by different actors, others of whom are relatives or outsiders. They are either homosexuals, either closeted or flagrant, or, with one exception, rabid homophobes. Even the important offstage characters fall into one of these two categories (only one woman is mentioned more than once), which creates a certain monotony. Worse, though, is the blur of all those selves and nonselves from three different periods marching in and out with little or no transition. I seldom could tell who was doing what to whom, or when, or where, or why.

Well, the “where” is more or less fixed. It is an unfinished and abandoned farmhouse in the fictional midwestern town of Thief River. But also the invisible but busy field outside it, its tumult commented on by onstage characters gazing into the distance. To cloud things further, Ray, one of the principals, also has a son, Ray Jr., whom we don’t see but hear about so much that we can mistake him for his father or his own son, both of whom do appear. After a while, I gave up, and just watched Mark Lamos’s overheated staging that rendered Blessing’s vehemence with incremental hysteria the way I would watch a Chinese martial-arts movie without subtitles.

But when, later, I read the script, which, unlike the program, begins by stating the relationships among the characters, and kept collating it with the program photographs, things started to coalesce. Though I am not sure whether the militantly anti-chronological telling of the story is always necessary, even if it does create striking effects, the tale of two homosexuals, Gil and Ray, in star-crossed (also convention- and temperament-crossed) love over six decades is not lacking in genuine pathos, humor, and universal human interest.

Moreover, Blessing, who here comes out of his usual blandness, writes lively dialogue that flexibly encompasses many modes, from wry to lyrical, from erotic to spiritual, and that – once you can follow it – keeps you involved: sometimes through amusement, sometimes through empathy, and always through curiosity about what comes next.

There are, to be sure, elements in the story that seem contrived, but you can tolerate them as earned poetic or dramatic license. The acting definitely deserves unqualified endorsement: Jeffrey Carlson, Erik Sorensen, Neil Maffin, Gregg Edelman, Frank Converse, and especially Remak Ramsay do themselves proud – not just singly but doubly.

There may be an upward limit for excellence, but downward yawns a bottomless pit. Just when you think you have seen the worst – the supreme inanity in, say, The Play About the Baby or Bat Boy: The Musical – along comes something exponentially lower yet. In this case, Nocturne, by Adam Rapp, half of which was enough to drive me out of the theater. The other half I read.

The play concerns Son, who, when 17, accidentally ran over his 9-year-old sibling, Sister. This made Father permanently sick, and Mother go bananas. Son, however, recovered, moved from Joliet (not, unfortunately, the prison) to the Lower East Side, got a job in a bookstore, and became a novelist. In the end, he goes back to visit Father, who expires in his arms. He does nothing about Mother, “sleepwalking in a cotton hospital dress,” but returns to his pad, wondering, “How many breaths do you take in a night?” He observes, “The Underwood still calls to me. Still calls to me through the rich, oblivious darkness.”

This pretentious, precious, pseudo-poetic, name-dropping drivel is one of those endless monologues that in the hands of an arrogant, untalented twit become menaces to society. Adam Rapp’s gush is one long, masturbatory ejaculation – or non-ejaculation, the protagonist proving impotent in that way, too. When, as a last resort, the Red-Headed Girl with Gray-Green Eyes, “a beautiful flower opening to him … attempts fellatio,” she is “faced with the same flaccid result” with which the ludicrously limp rhetoric staggers from pratfall to pratfall.

But actors are amazing creatures: Dallas Roberts, as Son, has memorized this two-hours-plus monologue, and flawlessly expels or excretes it at a stunned audience. Let me offer a sample of what the call of the Underwood has elicited. On page 1: “There’s a finality in a fact. Something medical, almost. A fact is crafted. Vaguely industrial. It has a permanence. It’s a stain or a smudge. A botch or a spot or a blemish. A fact is a flaw. It’s made of wood and left to fossilize: to gather minerals and geologically imprint itself on the side of a mountain.”

Now imagine 38 single-spaced pages of this balderdash that poor Dallas Roberts has to deliver with a straight face in an uncomfortably hunched posture. The director, Marcus Stern, jazzes up things by directing the minimal action in minimal scenery so as to steadily contradict what is being said. A supererogatory effort; the text alone is enough to give itself the lie.

What possessed a gifted producer-director like Lynne Meadow to stage a piece of cutesy trivia such as Melanie Marnich’s Blur? It is about 18-year-old Dot DiPrima, going slowly blind from a rare eye disease, but the blurry vision is rather more the playwright’s than the protagonist’s. For the dramatically sufficient story of someone’s going blind is sidetracked by a young girl’s problems with her fiendishly, almost incestuously doting mother, known only as Mom, and Dot’s growing pains as she stumbles toward adulthood alternately pushed forward or tripped up by three problematic pals.

Mom herself is almost enough for a play with her near-psychotic history; well do I understand why her husband fled early on. Now add to this Father O’Hara, a priest so permissive and radical as to leave his church for a sidewalk, and finally a mere bicycle with a mini altar on its handlebars. Add also a boyfriend, Joey, a cage-cleaner at the zoo, who cannot aspire higher than a pile of animal manure, and Francis sic, a lesbian chum who must contend with a cleft palate and delusions of grandeur. At least the play’s ophthalmologist is stable enough.

The acting cannot be faulted, but let me answer my initial question with a famous line more pregnant than any of the author’s: “Nobody’s perfect.”

Thief River
Directed by Mark Lamos.
Directed by Marcus Stern.
Directed by Lynne Meadow.

Invisible Men