Ever feel like you’re trapped in a bad “couch drama”? You know, those quasi-existential sulks set in artfully trashed apartments, starring attractive, bedheaded twentysomethings with sexy drug addictions and filthy mouths? (Filthy mouths that occasionally spew turgid bar-napkin poetry and ragged senior-thesis lit crit?) The kind of play that officially traces its ancestry to Osborne and Rabe, but owes a much larger genetic debt to nineties indie-film pretense?
I do, all the time. It’s my job to see a lot of couch plays; it’s every young playwright’s obligation to write them. They’re easy to produce, and they make use of life-sensations most young writers know firsthand, like hangovers, garden-variety college angst, basic sexual humiliation, bong-born philosophic breakthroughs, and the standard, contemporary American paradox: It’s Time to Grow Up/Nobody Ever Grows Up. They’re an excellent excuse to put a sign on the door warning viewers (Barnum-style) of the adult situations, gunshots, cigarette smoke, haze, and strobes waiting within. They often involve class tension, but it’s undermined by a nagging sense that the play itself is a luxury item, ipso facto evidence of privilege. Couch plays are rites of passage, signaling a writer’s willingness to engage topics that are Ugly and Hard, to burn a childhood security blanket or two, showily, in public, where there’s no taking it back. They’re also unrepentantly prurient, with a porny, exploitative underbelly that’s usually as impossible to fully disguise as it is impossible for the author to fully admit. I don’t begrudge a budding artist a couch play or two; some of them are actually good. But most are excruciating; as ritual skin-sheddings go, I’d rather watch a circumcision. Eighty-minutes-no-intermission can feel like eight-hours-no-mercy.
Habit, from director-creator David Levine and writer Jason Grote, is actually eight hours long. But — and this is crucial — only for the performers.
And with that innovation, Levine and Grote attempt to solve the problem of the couch play … without writing a good couch play. Habit — a theater “installation” where three actors cycle continuously through an hour-long script from 1 p.m. until 9 p.m. — is definitely not a good play, and this appears to be intentional. The script gleefully strains the skinny jeans of its own hipster-hackery: A junkie-stripper’s digressions on the semiotics of Halloween-décor are punctuated by frank talk about waxed vaginas and anal sex. A floppy-haired emo-lad does unspeakable things to a pumpkin. A lap dance is performed, ghoulishly, for a conflicted recipient. People antagonize one another steadily and indefatigably, as if they’re in it for the cardio. Destabilizing revelations and breaches of trust arrive right on schedule. Everything is taped via smartphone, and Facebook (now the official shorthand for the decay of humanism) is bitterly genuflected-to. I won’t bore you with the plot: A strung-out lost-girl (played by Samuel & Alasdair’s Stephanie Wright Thompson the day I came), home from college, is crashing with two troubled brothers from her run-down hometown, a drug-dealing alpha (Quinlan Corbett) and a sensitive beta (Matthew Stadelmann). (On alternate days, this trio-of-terror is played by Eliza Baldi, Ben Mehl, and Brian Bickerstaff, giving the other crew a day to recover.) What happens from there is both utterly predictable and entirely beside the point. The house contains a One Big Secret and One Big Gun; a bag of drugs is on hand as catalyst.
But here’s the twist: You can leave. You’re not trapped in a room with the actors. But they are trapped — in a self-contained, working ranch house, built inside an abandoned wing of the Essex Market on the Lower East Side. This dingy lair has running water, a fridge, a working stove and microwave, a day’s stock of food, several changes of clothes, and a TV that’s always on. (It’s Halloween in the play, and Halloween is on the tube, for part of the day, at least, in a nod to its genre kin and the inevitable carnage to come.) Audience members filter in off the street, poke their heads in the windows, and watch the highly scripted degradation unfold, over and over again. The windows (and a large opening where the sliding glass door should be) are the only way to observe the actors; they’ve been fig-leafed with diaphanous curtains, forcing us, the prowlers, to draw them aside ourselves if we want to watch. Audience members are observing each other as much as we’re observing the performers; we’re watching our co-voyeurs run around the house, following the actors as the peepshow moves from room to room. Some people back off when things get a little intimate, a little creepy; others giggle nervously. Others just stare. (There’s a shower, and a toilet, and the actors can decide whether or not to pull the curtain for some privacy.)
I arrived early, saw a rotation and a half, left for four hours, and returned to watch another cycle. The skylight above, which had been beating down midday sun when I left, was now a bluish twilight; the lights in the house were on. The feigned hangovers, called for in the script, now looked a darn sight more earned, more felt. (The text doesn’t change, but the interpretations do, as the actors try different things, out of craft or boredom or exhaustion or all of the above.)
Habit is a mutant of a show; its purpose is open to interpretation. You can say it amplifies the normal voyeurism of theater and implicates a detached, merely curious audience in the degradation of characters enslaved to a cheap, fatalistic, pseudoadolescent narrative. (The actors are just a little too old for their roles, heightening the effect.) You can say it challenges notions of fixed staging by allowing the actors to simply exist in the play, to live in it and change it and let it change them. But the boldest, most notable, most frustrating and limiting aspect of Habit is the play itself. It’s easy to imagine this live-in approach to another, more delightful, more cooperative substrate: a door-slamming farce, say, or a basic mystery, or Shakespeare, Molière, maybe some chestnut from the MLA. Levine and Grote have instead selected the ill-tempered couch play; and like a sullen boa constrictor, it slowly consumes all the mice in the terrarium. Habit: The Play, in the grinding peristalsis of its mediocrity, digests the actors who populate Habit: The Installation. It’s a uniquely horrifying thing to observe, and to observe yourself observing. (I felt marginally worse about this macro voyeurism than I felt about the micro infringements, like rushing to a bedroom window to watch a young woman undress — hey, it was a plot point!) There’s nothing transcendent about all of this — quite the opposite, in fact. By the end of the day, the Habit-space has developed a distinct and detectable funk, the aroma of a cage that needs cleaning. It’s a smell I think every young playwright should get a big lungful of before they hunker down for a Big Write: Characters aren’t puppets. They’re vulnerable to abuse. And unlike Pirandello’s complainants, these shades can’t even lodge an appeal — there’s nothing beyond their four walls but a bunch of prowlers and peeping toms. Habit is a powerful curiosity, if not exactly an entertainment, and it gives you a strong whiff of what an airless imagination smells like.
Habit is playing at 130 Essex St, between Stanton and Rivington, through September 30. It’s free.