The last time Will Arbery named a play after a town in Texas, he wrote Plano, the slipperiest, strangest little snake of a thing, one that wriggled around its own chronology and hissed when you poked it. One character was a faceless man, who might have been several men, skulking around a front porch while three sisters (based on three of Arbery’s own) debated their own family’s history of supernatural events. Then, I think, one married the faceless man? I have seen it twice and read it, too, but Plano deliberately foils your recollections and makes you into your own private unreliable narrator.
I mention Plano because Corsicana (now at Playwrights Horizons) is that play’s twin and reflection. Arbery has returned to a desaturated Texas setting with the same sense of psychological displacement; again he is writing about his own sister (though a different one) and, to some extent, his own mind. The autobiography in both adds a secret depth and ballast, even when other parts seem wild. But where the witchy Plano was exquisitely integrated throughout, the more realistic Corsicana seems at odds with itself. After a perfect first hour, some late-play exchanges seem almost unedited, with monologues that wrench at the carefully considered preceding act. I am still grateful, though, that where Plano snuck slyly away from my conscious attention, this play — serious, lopsided, occasionally beautiful — chooses to stick and stay.
Corsicana is dedicated to Julia, Arbery’s older sister, who has Down syndrome. “I’ve always wanted to create a play about what it’s like to be her brother,” he says in the program note, which goes on to celebrate her unselfconscious musicality and, importantly, her privacy. What happens behind her door is a mystery to him, and his note is cautious about revealing his own feelings about her, let alone opening any door she chooses to close.
This fundamental ambivalence about playwriting itself informs Will Dagger’s performance as Christopher, the play’s Arbery avatar. In the show’s superb early scenes, Christopher bridles when his 34-year-old sister Ginny (Jamie Brewer) calls him lazy, but he also slumps bonelessly onto a couch for most of his conversations with her; he depends on her and is also her caretaker, which complicates the way they are handling their grief after their mother’s death. A neighbor and dear friend, Justice (Deirdre O’Connell), helps with things like groceries and babysitting (“I’M AN ADULT,” says Ginny, if anyone calls it that in her hearing), but you still feel the affectionate little family fraying from fabric into threads.
Vocally, they’re an orchestra, well conducted by director Sam Gold. Dagger has a wonderful, funny, complaining tone (he manages to whine without speaking while resetting a router), and his odd, syncopated rhythms work well in counterpoint to O’Connell’s insistent kindly alto. O’Connell is also one of our greatest onstage listeners, and her grave stillness when others speak becomes one of the production’s most important sounds. Ginny speaks in rhythm like a poet — Brewer pauses to smile between each lyrical phrase as if she’s marking the end of a line. “The best thing about being a woman with Down syndrome is being smart and doing lots of special things for people,” she says. “And I am sensitive. My heart is like this dream-wish about things. The best thing about my heart is that I can talk to anybody.”
Ginny really can talk to anybody, including Lot (Harold Surratt), an outsider artist who works on some kind of massive, unseen piece that he is making as a “one-way street to God.” Christopher hopes that Lot can teach Ginny to write her feelings down as a song, but it seems like a doomed project: Lot and Ginny can talk, but they agree on very little, particularly when she tries to tell him about her crushes and pop music.
Where they do connect is in their experience of others, or rather of being othered. This is Lot, describing the way that he and Ginny are reduced to people who need things rather than want them:
And then someone like me comes around. Or someone like you comes around. Complicated people. Layered people. Granite. Basalt. Obsidian people. We’re so complicated people don’t want to think about it. So they make us more simple. In their brains. They don’t think about it, and they call us simple. And everything is about our needs. All our little needs.
At first, Arbery expertly plays the four characters like cards, shuffling them according to their, well, needs. His writing here is exquisitely judged and particular, yet always ringing to the same, just-out-of-audible-range tuning fork. Every conversation is downbeat and desultory; the days seem too hot, too endless to come to a point. The characters must know that the others love them, but their accompanying requirements — respect, care, freedom, solitude — jostle each relationship out of square. Ginny’s matter-of-fact affection throws Lot’s tense emotional stasis into a flat spin, which caroms into Justice, which swings wide at Christopher. Just when all those complicated pieces are careening and moving, Arbery runs out of restraint. And when a writer gets nervous, that’s when the monologues start.
First, he has Christopher deliver a fantastic, overwritten shaggy-dog story that should end the play. Then he writes a monologue for Justice, a clotted, wandering, almost unsayable treatise on love. (Justice describes her parents’ marriage as involving “triage and so many labyrinths as to make it almost an optical illusion.” Who says “as to make it”?) Then there’s one for Lot that contains far too much explanation and confession, rupturing Lot’s own laconic mystery. Arbery is too subtle a writer to end a play with a “let me explain my painful background so you’ll understand me” speech, yet here one is. I kept thinking the play needed to respect Justice’s and Lot’s “closed doors,” in the way Arbery respects Ginny/Julia’s and even Chris/his own.
Gold’s production makes up for that missing restraint by being ruthlessly spare. He and the set designers Laura Jellinek and Cate McCrea have converted the stage into a giant, white-walled warehouse where characters wait to enter scenes, leaning propped against and behind columns. To add color (almost always a pale shimmer), Isabella Byrd’s lighting filters through the translucent plastic shed roof, a huge, proscenium-spanning structure that extends partway over the audience too. Ginny’s overstuffed brown couch is doubled, and a turntable rotates each sofa into view, so the team can change a scene’s time (now it’s later, since someone different is on the couch) rather than its location. It’s a bleak space but evocative: The dirt-beige floor and the plastic roof suggest an archaeological dig where the playwright and the company are carefully excavating the Arberyscape.
The elephant in the theater, of course, is our memory of Arbery’s last play, not Plano but Heroes of the Fourth Turning, which was a galactic success, shortlisted for a Pulitzer Prize, and one of the most important works of theater of the last ten years. (Imagine not being squashed by an elephant that size.) Turning’s effortless concatenation of talk included long arias about theology and conservative orthodoxy, which didn’t bother audiences or critics, certainly not the way the late-play “monologues” bother me here. So it isn’t the talking or the length of it that disappointed me, but the telling, occasional weakness in this play’s language, its inconsistencies of register, measure, and meter. Luckily, there is the production itself, which provides a kind of bedrock support beneath a sometimes shaky text. At the end of Corsicana, everybody stops speaking and sings. It’s an affecting moment, one that Arbery and Gold and their marvelous cast have judged for exact emotional thrust. Each one sings their own verse, sitting on the brown ground; each one has a moment under the weak yellow light.
Corsicana is at Playwrights Horizons through July 10.