Trailer-trash comedy or drama, perhaps not quite in evidence enough for a genre, surely qualifies as a subgenre. It caters to an audience’s need to feel superior to at least some people without becoming politically incorrect. “Redneck,” after all, refers less to skin color than to a darkness of mind, a state that can be exploited for easy laughs and titillating goosebumps. That Rebecca Gilman’s characters in The Glory of Living are both risible and reprehensible, but not patronized or caricatured, is in itself an accomplishment.
Gilman’s plays – her Spinning Into Butter and Boy Gets Girl have been seen in New York recently – explore unseemly subjects in challenging ways with varying efficacy, but never without interest to us. Here again she tackles a sordid but cautionary story. Fifteen-year-old Lisa lost her father when she was 10; her mother turns tricks in their wretched one-room quarters with only a hanging sheet separating Lisa from the sights, but not the sounds, of crude sex. The sullen girl has learned to live with this; but when Clint, the sidekick of one of the mother’s johns, offers Lisa marriage and escape, she jumps at the chance.
The unfortunate girl only exchanges one kind of lovelessness for another. Her twin babies have been dumped on Clint’s mother while the young couple rattles through the South from motel to motel, and Lisa is obliged to lure naïve young girls into having kinky sex with Clint. When riddance by bullet emerges as the most expeditious way to dispose of her husband’s victims, she is eventually even prodded into becoming Clint’s executioner. All this is presented without prurience, condescension, or moralizing. And when Lisa finally – perhaps too late – encounters an empathetic human being, Gilman does not turn sentimental.
Still, I don’t want to oversell a modest play whose seamy and savage goings-on will not be to everybody’s taste. Strongly but unluridly directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman – even forgoing nudity where the author calls for it – The Glory of Living holds us through psychological shrewdness and on-target language, to which is added incisive performing.
Anna Paquin, the bravura child star of The Piano, has matured into a compelling young actress, even if her looks do not match the text’s requirements. She endows Lisa with disarming directness, uncluttered with pleas for sympathy. When her anxious attorney is the first to accord her humane concern, her thawing out into belated humanity is exquisitely calibrated. As the engaging but psychotic Clint, Jeffrey Donovan is no less exemplary, as is David Aaron Baker as the girl’s compassionate defender. Lesser roles, too, are caringly realized, notably by Andrew McGinn as a witness for the prosecution. The only disappointment is the rather routine music and sound design by the usually outstanding David Van Tieghem.
The Australian Andrew Bovell, co-author of the cult film Strictly Ballroom (overrated trash), does not rise much higher from Down Under with his drama Speaking in Tongues, which does, however, ascend the heights of piled-up gimmickry. The play revels in coincidences, each more incredible than the last, and though there is no speaking in tongues, there is a good deal of speaking in irritating unison by characters supposedly in separate locations.
Duplication thrives in both play and production. The four actors play double if not triple roles, while a décor replete with mirrors supplies a surfeit of multiple reflections as a pseudo?bedroom farce inches into a pseudo?murder mystery. The first act offers parallel adulteries or near-adulteries by two unacquainted couples, each husband coincidentally carrying on with the other’s wife. By a further pair of parallel coincidences, one partner in each marriage finds out, while the other does not. And in each couple, one spouse gets an interminable monologue about another set of characters, climaxing in abandoned shoes, although in one case a full pair; in the other, only one.
As if this weren’t enough, the second act brashly discards these characters and switches to those evoked in Act One’s paired monologues, now played by the same actors. Here, once more, tricky interweaving and concatenated coincidences create an occludedly self-referential world, as painful as an ingrown toenail. The loss of credibility is a gain in claustrophobia. Everything is calculated with fiendishly geometrical manipulativeness, so that when one character’s fate remains unresolved, what could have been a mere hole comes across as a crater. Under the circumstances, Mark Clements’s direction is hard to evaluate, but the four actors bear up valiantly amid Richard Hoover’s hall-of-mirrors scenery and Brian MacDevitt’s fun-house lighting. I have nothing but admiration for Karen Allen, Kevin Anderson, and Michel R. Gill, and something akin to adoration for Margaret Colin, one of our theater’s most inspired yet unjustly underused actresses.
If you want to see a large white unappealing male mediocrity and a small black unappealing female mediocrity disport themselves foolishly in a piece of claptrap the former concocted, I recommend to you And God Created Great Whales, written, composed, and, with Nora Cole, performed by Rinde Eckert. The cast also features five tape recorders of different colors contributing their own verbal detritus. It all consists of snippets from Moby-Dick (in my view as unreadable as a masterpiece can get) interlarded with near-meaningless snippets of Eckert’s. Eckert also plays his own boring music on the piano or, orchestrated, on tape.
On top of that, he (execrably) and she (indifferently) sing drivel to this music, and enact some crazy tale about a composer and his muse. Eckert saggingly shuffles about; Cole slinks around smugly. Colored lights strung on numerous wires add their two cents’ worth of nonsense. The piano is covered with Post-Its for no reason, and there is some rope to lend the paltry set that Melvillean nautical look. Sometimes Eckert sings in falsetto or crawls on all fours; Cole at times perches on the piano or gets a pointless costume change. Who would have thought that an eternity spent in hell could be conveyed in a mere 75 minutes by a man seemingly off his rocker?
The Glory of Living
By Rebecca Gilman, staged by Philip Seymour Hoffman, starring Anna Paquin.
Speaking in Tongues
By Andrew Bovell, staged by Mark Clements.
And God Created Great Whales
Written and performed by Rinde Eckert.