“The best thing about me,” says Ellen (Marin Ireland), “is I understand what’s irritating about me.” That would be the best thing about Ellen — who’s both the fulcrum and false-bottom of Lisa Kron’s exasperating new play In the Wake — if only it were true: She has a “blind spot,” she tells us, over and over, though it’s more like a case of moral ADD.
Ellen has a common-law husband, Danny (The Aliens’ Michael Chernus), who’s a public schoolteacher in New York; a passionate girlfriend, Amy (Omnium Gatherum’s Jenny Bacon), who’s an abstract artist in Boston; and “a big family jumble, this puppy pile of people,” comprised of her sister-in-law Kayla (Susan Pourfar), Kayla’s spouse Laurie (Danielle Skraastad), and the working-class prophetess Judy (the total pro Deirdre O’Connell, late of Circle Mirror Transformation) — all of whom are more or less willing to put up with Ellen’s compulsive stream of deeply felt cant. They quip and zing and trade Plowshares quotes with each other in their cozy tenement living room, in their only-partially gentrified neighborhood, with an African mask smiling beatifically from the wall and a horseshoe suspended above the door. What to do with this brimming pot of abundant Caucasoid prog-love? Tip it, of course.
Ellen’s damned familiar and familiarly damned. Most of us in the audience are some version of her, high-minded New York liberals who spent the Bush Years in trial separation from the rest of country, but now, in retrospect, find ourselves equally implicated in the quintessential American-ness of that wasted age: the swollen-hearted righteousness, the fantastic stratagems to supersede an old morality and install our own, the fatal pioneer drive to Have It All. “It’s the thing that just … just slays me about this country — that it was set up to be a place where people could change,” Ellen declaims to Amy, “that the whole idea was to allow people to change their status, change their lives.” Change comes, of course — in fact, it’s already come, and how. We meet Ellen as she looks back on the political and personal wreckage of the last decade, and we are irritated, profoundly irritated — with Ellen, with this play, with this nation, with ourselves. When her long-suffering common-law mate, Danny, offers to build Ellen “a sound-proofed NPR listening room,” we dearly wish he’d entomb her in it. Then we realize: She’s already there. And, good Lord, we’re in there with her.
A longtime solo performer, Kron is no stranger to the echo chamber: Her Tony-nominated all-about-my-mother meta-play Well internalized Kron’s distrust of her own moral compass, as her characters stage a Pirandellan uprising against a glib narrator — played by Lisa Kron. In the Wake tries to expand her scorched-earth campaign of self-analysis, though it’s a far more conventional work. And unlike Well, its windows are painted shut. The egregious, hand-holding video projections of Bush-age media moments — the recount, the ground-zero speech, the ‘04 presidential debate — feel less like moral foregrounding and more like overly elaborate gift-wrapping for a very small object: Ellen’s insecurities are the play’s, and the abdication of authority here feels like a retreat, not a choice.
Our best hopes lie with Chernus, a gnomic hipster-husband whose motivations for sticking with his straying life-mate remain conveniently obscure until late in the play. Chernus (who was the highlight of Annie Baker’s The Aliens) has the post-Apatovian male down pat: the softness and the sting. Kron writes her warmest, funniest, roomiest dialogue for him, and Chernus makes the most of it, building a surprisingly optimistic case for the maturation of the man-child. But ultimately, his Danny is just another chubby roadie on Ellen’s grand tour. The same goes for O’Connell’s Judy, the play’s most magical invention: A blue-collar prole who now works in refugee camps, she’s an almost comically exaggerated singularity of “authenticity,” with an access to Real Life that Ellen can’t hope to achieve. O’Connell understands the humor in the role, and plays Judy just shy of a Carol Burnett caricature, but ultimately, Judy’s simply there to take up the scourge when Ellen’s tired of whipping herself. Ireland, best known for her wounded women-children (in Blasted, A Lie of the Mind), plays a different, far more domesticated kind of arrested-development case, and she negotiates the bloggy hysterics of Ellen’s monologic refrains with humor and grace. To her credit, she’s really gotten inside Ellen — but once in, Kron doesn’t let her out. The main character’s inability to aerate her interior mirrors the play’s failure to mediate its ideas with any art, theatrical, lyric, or other. There’s no formal trickery here, but no real insight, either. After two hours of telling a story that barely needed one, In the Wake ends up where it began. It never answer its own question: Why do people keep falling in love with Ellen when they’re obviously so irritated with her? At one point, during a long rattle about her inability to grasp the “patriotic” fury fueling Iraq, Danny attempts to explain to Ellen: “There’s a difference between intellectual anger, and wanting to kill somebody.” But by this time, that distinction, for the audience, has become an awfully fine one.