Saturday, August 23, 2014

Douglas Messerli "You Can't Go Home Again" (on Mac Wellman's Second-Hand Smoke)

you can’t go home again

Mac Wellman Second-Hand Smoke (published in Crowtet 2, Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2003)

 It must been around 1996, the year in which Mac Wellman’s third work of his Crowtet quartet premiered at Fordham University, that I co-produced a reading of the play with the theatre company, Bottom’s Dream, in Los Angeles. When I now look back on that reading, I remember it fondly, as I did when I reread the play before my Green Integer publication of the work, along with The Lesser Magoo in 2003. But reading it again, yesterday, I was struck with little of this rich text I had assimilated, the experience feeling as if it was the first time I had encountered it.
     I missed what was perhaps a wonderful production of it in New York in 1997 at Primary Stages, with my friend, the legendary actor and playwright David Greenspan playing Mr. Glitter, along with Vera Farmiga as Linda, Johann P. Adler as Susannah, and David Patrick Kelly as William Hard.
    What really struck me this time about Wellman’s whole Crowtet series is not only its nostalgic approach to an American landscape  which the characters, young and old, can barely abide and is not-so-slowly destroying them through its vast corporate greed and incompetency, and the radioactive quagmire into which it has been transformed. If the inhabitants of the dying community Gradual, Ohio are all rather strange, chalk it up to the effects of the toxic “smaze” which blankets the region, the gradual deaths imposed upon its youths in the drudgery boredom of days working at Days Inn. Is it any wonder that the citizens of the region have all been transformed into mad bats, pesky rats, and roaming cats?
     The local executive Mister Glitter begins the play buried in pseudo-scientific language which he clearly is unable to comprehend:

                     Lever escapement. An escapement in which
                     a pivoted lever, made to oscillate
                     by the escape wheel, engages a balance
                     staff and causes it to oscillate.

                     A, impulse roller; B, notch; C, lever;
                     D, ruby pin.

     So engaged in such seemingly meaningless instructions and equations (X=a log (a + a2 + y + a@ - y) is Mister Glitter that he has no time and certainly no patience with traveling-salesman-like visitors such as Harry Custom and even his own employee determined to introduce Glitter to the visitor, Mister Phelan.
     Like most busy executives, Glitter is emphatically self-centered and determinedly rude, brushing off not only Custom, but the vising Slyvia Palista, a representative of a federal agency of even she cannot recall the name.. If at first Glitter seems a bit more polite and inquisitive about the agency guest, it is only because she is an attractive woman who might bring back a negative report to her agency. But when he finally challenges her to produce some credentials, she is found not even to be listed in the agency book, and is even more rudely ousted tham Custom, who has quietly remained at the center of power.
     Suddenly, near the end of the day, all three remaining men drop their pants, don “fustenellas and the tarboosh,” close the drapes and dance a “disturbing and gloomy rock song with the lyric”:

                                             Close the drapes
                                             Aunt Wednesday
                                             is changing.

   If in the first play of the Crowtet Susannah and her crow-fixated father, Raymond, claimed that they donned fezzes and outlandish costumes because of their having been gypsies in their early lives, the current denizens of Gradual and nearby hamlets we now learn, according to William Hard in the 3rd act of this play, that “They ape these things to appropriate what’s foreign. Foreign-ness.” Like small-town Shriners, the citizens of  this festering “Land of Evening” simply make up the reasons for their strange behavior in their “Quasi-religious, quasi-mystical, quasi-scientific” Americaness, attempt to regain the “foreign and forbidden” that was once part of their immigrant pasts.
       The more I see and read Wellman’s theater, the more I realize that he has created a kind of grand world akin to Oz where nearly anyone and everyone proclaims himself as a kind of wizard, growling out, as does Mister Phelan in the First Entr’acte, murky conjurations that keep reality of their not-knowing at a distance.
       In the terrifying second “rats” section of Wellman’s touching inversion of Americana, two young girls challenge themselves to stay atop Mister Phelan’s house as long as they possibly can, entertaining themselves and passing the time in absurdly childish and sometimes terrifyingly witty games that include every maxim, piece of jargon, advertising jingle, state slogan, and cliché and nonsensical patter that they have overheard from the surrounding adults. The be-fezzed Mister Phelan peeks through the blinds, conjuring up a magical weirdness that even these young girls, Linda and Susan, realize is utterly bizarre. But how else are they to entertain themselves in a world enveloped in such an “evil cloud.” Their seemingly meaningless banter may sound, as sound simply to be, as the Variety reviewer Howard Waxman summarizes, a dialogue that “melts into a jumble of syllables with mysteries we don’t care to solve,” but how better might they escape the shopping center realities of the world they inhabit. Indeed, I might suggest that the rhythmic chattering of these rats sometimes evolves into a kind a pure poetry that, as William Carlos Williams declared, represents the “pure products of America” gone crazy.
      The play, in fact, ends in a kind of tragic dirge for howling “cats” as, from the opposite direction the two young girls’ binocularly-contained gaze, Susannah and William Hard of the previous two plays, return to the place where their voyage has begun. Having failed in her attempt to find what Bishop Berkeley describes as “bedazzlement,” to discover “a totally different place: where / angels sing, and the dialectical urge / my be laid to rest forever,”  the worn out Susannah is ready to return to “The Junior college at Ping Pong, / …to study typing, theater arts, and waste management,” to work as all the others do,  changing light bulbs at Days Inn.
      Forced by her mentor, Mister William Hard, Susannah spends the last several stanzas of this sad soliloquy reciting the renunciations of her would-be teacher. Like the suddenly exposed Wizard of Oz, Susannah, in Hard’s voice, surrenders her dreams, her magic, her perceived difference to what she has attempted to leave behind:

              I, MISTER WILLIAM HARD, Doctor of Divinity,
              Gradualness and Equidistance, renounce
              both river and craft. I surrender my 
              magical powers to Baron Samedi, Lord of
              the Dead. I renounce both Bug River 
              and the needle of its dream. I renounce
              slambang what is rigid and straight, and 
              what wiggles. And all the craft of Wicca,
              whether of the Tribe of Gradual or the
              Tale of the Bug.
              I renounce all these because…my heart is broke.

      What Susannah discovers, however, is what Judy Garland’s Dorothy never quite came to realize: despite one’s fervent desire, Wellman reiterates, you can never go home again, no matter how many times you tap the heels of your ruby covered feet. For Susannah, “nothing happens.” As the always on-the-prowl pedant Mister William Hard exclaims:

                              This is what happens,
                              Susannah, when
                              the scene is too big for the frame;
                              this is what happens when the frame
                              can NEVER be filled.

No matter how much her heart is broken, no matter how few of her dreams have come to be realized, Susannah somewhat tragically discovers that her experience is now too large to allow her to slip back into the confines from which she has escaped.

 Los Angeles, August 22, 2014

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