What’s new on the rialto? A pair of enigmatic plays produced in compact Capitol Hill theaters:
‘Tall Skinny Cruel Cruel Boys’
Glimmers of potent original talent catch the light in this Washington Ensemble Theatre (WET) world premiere by Caroline V. McGraw — even if the play is one messy psychodrama.
McGraw can grab your attention. How about a rapacious scarlet monster, whose gigantic paws with long, lethal talons emerge from under the bed in the night?
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The bed is Brandy’s (played with woozy ferocity by Hannah Victoria Franklin), a for-hire clown whose life ain’t no barrel of laughs. She’s terrorized by that vile nocturnal creature (a Jungian projection of her own monstrousness?), emotionally shut down and dangerously, cynically promiscuous.
“Tall Skinny Cruel Cruel Boys” observes Brandy at birthday parties doing her low-wattage clown thing for tots. And it follows her aimless erotic adventures with a horny high-school student (Jay Myers), and a seductive parent and coldhearted gamester (Billy Gleeson).
The 90-minute one-act juxtaposes Brandy’s alienated kinkiness with the relative wholesomeness of a chatty mom (Kate Kraay) who befriends her polar opposite, and the spurned-but-spunky girlfriend (Samie Spring Detzer) of Brandy’s boy toy.
These disparate feminine personae, and Brandy’s dark fears and compulsions, bring us into a fascinating realm of female sexual identity — and a motif often woven into the contemporary plays WET tackles.
Also alluring here is the question of how fantasy literature can feed a girl’s mythic imagination, for better and worse.
Amid this juicy good stuff, one can’t overlook a looseness and repetitiousness in “Tall Skinny Cruel Cruel Boys” that prevents it from being a real knockout. The play could dig deeper into Brandy’s psyche and vary her exploits, without losing mysteriousness.
The clown routines (some duets with a short, fellow merrymaker played by Scott Ward Abernethy) are saggy and unrevealing. And after an exciting action climax (with that awesome puppet ogre), the upbeat ending feels simplistic and slapdash.
The entire WET cast attack their roles with vigor, and comic flair. And the lively staging by Jane Nichols makes great use of Peter Rush’s primal white tent of a set. It’s a silky projection screen for nightmares, and better dreams.
Runs through June 24 at Washington Ensemble Theatre, Seattle; $15-$25 (206-325-5105 or www.washingtonensemble.org).
Tony Kushner’s one-act monologue also delves into the shadowy psyche of a woman — in this case, a British housewife enthralled by the history of Afghanistan.
An obsessive reader of antique travel books about exotic lands, this cerebral character is embraced at New City Theater by Mary Ewald — whose mastery of the poetic monologue has previously shone in Samuel Beckett and Wallace Shawn works.
With prescient timing, Kushner, a playwright both celebrated and controversial, wrote “Homebody” and a longer, more populace companion play, “Kabul,” soon before 9/11.
He has since revised the scripts, and described “Homebody” as “a very questioning play about uncertainty, and how hard it is to know anything. If the play helps give people permission to be unsure about things, I would consider that a good day’s work.”
Presented in a brick corner of New City, the piece is staged by John Kazanjian as an intimate encounter. The Homebody sips her tea and spins tales about a rugged Middle Eastern country rocked over the centuries by upheavals and occupations, speaking in a manner “elliptical” and “fluttery,” and encrusted with obscure verbiage.
Beyond the pretentious vocabulary, Ewald’s Homebody is clearly a lonely creature living vicariously through books, and an eccentric stand-in for all those who don’t make history but watch it with awe and impotence from afar.
The crux of the piece is a fantasy Homebody spins about the ordeals of a disfigured man she sees in a local shop and assumes is Afghan. Her story about him maps the modern tragedy of Afghanistan, and the Western part in it, and ends with an erotic union with a victim of that history. This vision may assuage Homebody’s isolation, but it also romances the suffering of the Other.
Without the darker developments of “Kabul,” one must interpret “Homebody” on one’s own, or simply fall under Ewald’s spell. I came away freshly reminded of, our complicated role in a remote country that is, wrote columnist Maureen Dowd, “more than the ‘graveyard of empires.’ It’s the mother of vicious circles.”
Runs through June 22 at New City Theater, Seattle; $15 (800-838-3006 or www.brownpapertickets.com).
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org