With White People, playwright and screenwriter Neil Cuthbert returns to the womb that bore him, the Ensemble Studio Theater, with a barbed dramedy based loosely on his seventies upbringing in one of the pastier suburbs of New Jersey. Take The Ice Storm down a few tax brackets, replace the botched orgies with bumptious one-liners, and you’re nearly there: Shell-shocked father Hal (James DeMarse) has started drinking again, mother Mag (Cecilia deWolf) is grappling with her own ferocious mothersaur (Delphi Harrington) — a Goldwater Republican who patrols North Jersey in her Lincoln, dispensing amateur ethnological tidbits — and all three twentysomething kids still live at home, subsisting on Fresca, Excedrin, and Ding Dongs. Can a swarthy stranger (a smoov Mickey Solis) save them from themselves? Cuthbert isn’t breaking any new ground here, but he’s written a funny, fond, but not entirely forgiving family portrait, full of wist and rue. It’ll make you forget he also wrote The Adventures of Pluto Nash.
At the Wooster Group’s Vieux Carré, we open on a young Writer (Ari Fliakos) — or rather, a man who remembers himself as young. He’s living amid the ruins of his own memory, in the French Quarter flophouse where he came of age both as an artist and a sexual being: His neighbor, an aging, consumptive queen (Scott Shepherd, sporting a cantilevered strap-on and a broad drawl), dispenses cynical wisdom in tweet-length epigrams. (“Morals are a human invention that God ignores as easily as we do.”) His rapidly unraveling landlady (Kate Valk) torments a basement tenant with boiling water poured through a crack in the floor. Yet for all its gothic touches, Tennessee Williams’s 1977 memory play — a sort of bookend or coda to The Glass Menagerie — was probably his most clearheaded work of the seventies. You’d expect the Wooster Group to do their oldfangled avant-garde-est to screw with the play’s dewy-eyed symmetries. But when the smoke clears after their usual aural and video assault, they’ve left most of the show structurally intact. (The porny webcam voyeurism and Craigslist prurience isn’t really new at all: Williams, a longtime master of the late-night analog hookup, surely would’ve used Grindr if he’d had the chance.) For all its fluttery gestures toward social-media exhibitionism and computing-cloud-confided reminiscences, though, Elizabeth Lecompte’s production isn’t really about the digitalization of memory — it’s about sheer, breakneck speed. She overturns Williams’s dusty shoebox of mementos and shakes it violently, until she’s sure every last photo and scrap-paper note has been rattled loose. It’s a strong choice, but ultimately an exhausting one. By the time the Writer intones the play’s final line, “This house is empty now,” we feel the release of an incriminating browser cache being cleared — but not necessarily the click of memory transforming into art.
In a recent short story, the great George Saunders writes of a powerful anti-antidepressant called Darkenfloxx, which induces dolor so black and deep, the effect is almost comical — even if the unavoidable outcome is suicide. Adam Rapp’s plays aim to be the dramatic equivalent of Darkenfloxx. With The Hallway Trilogy, he spreads his gospel of pain over 100 years, setting three separate stories (one from 1953, one from 2003, one from 2053, and each about 90 minutes long) in the same Lower East Side hallway. In the first, “Rose,” a parade of Cold War types review the social contract … before two of them attempt suicide. (One succeeds.) In the second, “Paraffin,” a clutch of lost Bush-era souls — the unhappy young soon-to-be mother, the paralyzed war veteran, the sad-sack super, the queen — make the most of the Great New York City blackout … before one of them is called upon to shoot a machete-wielding maniac. Finally, in “Nursing,” the most instantly arresting but also the most preposterous of the three, we skip ahead to a not-so-distant future where disease has been eliminated, and so has empathy. (This last feels like a classy indie zombie-flick script Rapp adapted to fill out his troika.) It’s undeniably watchable, and Rapp’s quicker, less freighted dialogue is often quite brilliant, but there’s always something compulsive and adolescent about his nihilism — he brims with bad poetry that he should really learn to resist. Personally, I reacted to all the blood, shit, piss, tears, and diseased sex with the same no-he-didn’t! gasps I generally reserve for Will Ferrell movies. His men and women still talk to each other like Very Serious Teenagers, and I’m not entirely sure what his plays are, y’know, for. Yet I had a pretty great time in the theater, if that’s the way to describe a night spent watching (among other things) a man wipe his ass in my face.
White People is at the Ensemble Studio Theater, and Vieux Carré is at the Wooster Group, both through March 13. The Hallway Trilogy is at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater through March 20.