Saturday, September 7, 2019

66 (2019-2020): Review: BAD PENNY (seen September 5, 2019)

“Tails Down”

Mac Wellman, the prolific, multi-award-winning playwright, novelist, essayist, and poet heads the Brooklyn College’s MFA Playwriting Program (we were colleagues before my 2007 retirement from the Theatre Department). He's made it one of the most successful in the country: think Annie Baker, Young Jean Lee, Thomas Bradshaw, etc. Wellman's also a cofounder of Tribeca’s Flea Theater, which is presently offering five of his short plays in a festival called Mac Wellman: Perfect Catastrophes.
Joseph Huffman, Emma Orme, Baile de Lacy, Lambert Tamin. All photos: Allison Stock.
Wellman has held high the banner of nontraditional, avant-garde, post-absurdist theatre throughout his abundant career. His nonlinear, linguistically challenging, intellectually slippery, politically charged, and morally determined plays fly in the face of conservative, realistic theatre, with which he has notably taken issue. These idiosyncratic qualities are present in the first two of the festival’s plays, the black comedies Bad Penny and Sincerity Forever (reviewed separately).

Like many of Wellman’s works, these are niche plays, loved by his followers (only a few of whom were there when I went) but caviar to the masses, who would generally prefer the theatrical equivalent of hot dogs and burgers (like me, I guess).
Rear: Baile de Lacy, Dana Placentra, Lambert Tamin; front: Katelyn Sabet, Alex J. Moreno, Caroline Banks; right: Emma Orme.
Be aware that, while they’re presented on the same evening, the tickets are sold separately. If you intend to see them back to back—most who attended when I did chose not to do so (unless Bad Penny convinced them not to return)—be prepared to find something to occupy you nearby between 8:00 and 9:00 pm. Thomas Street is not located in a particularly jumping downtown spot. I was lucky because my plus-one lives a few blocks away.

Bad Penny, originally given a site-specific performance in 1989, near the lake at Central Park’s Bow Bridge, where the action transpires among a group of strangers, is here performed in a small outdoor patio area directly behind the Flea's Pete Theater. To suggest the park setting, the concrete ground is covered with AstroTurf. A single row of metal, plastic, wood (with a picnic table), and canvas chairs (the low, beach-type folding ones) circles the space. Several blankets and yoga mats are spread about for audience members to sit on. The place, designed by Jian Jung, resembles a nursery school play area more than it does Central Park, or any park, for that matter.

Tall, glass windows (one is also a door to the interior) line one side of the space. Although a considerable amount of important action will occur on the inside of the windows, only those opposite the wall can see it, depriving at least a quarter of the audience of the view.
Joseph Huffman, Emma Orme, Dana Placentra, Baile de Lacy.
This is part of the reason director Kristan Seemel’s production only further clouds the  already hard-to-grasp dialogue and behavior. Things are even further dulled by the insistent hum of what seem 100 air conditioners, not to mention, when I attended, repeated helicopter noise.

The confusion created by mingling the actors—the Bats, the Flea’s resident company of young actors-in-training—with the audience, which at first makes it difficult to separate the normally-dressed actors from spectators, requires a few minutes before we can tell who’s who. In short, the production, for all the actors’ enthusiasm, would seem to serve the already problematic play poorly. I say “seem” because this may be precisely what’s being sought.

My wife is one who never leaves a dropped penny behind but insists on rescuing it from abandonment. Bad Penny suggests this might not be such a good idea. The bad penny retrieved by Kat (Bailie de Lacy)—a young woman (designated as Woman One) who’s had mental problems, is obsessed with myth, and ponders whether the sky is real or an illusion—appears to be attracting bad luck.

This is expressed through her exchanges with others she encounters, beginning with Man One (Jason Huffman), calling himself Ray X, “a freelance memory fabulist and metaphysician and card player” from Big Ugly, Montana, who’s left his Ford Fairlane 500 on the East Side because of a flat.  Carrying the tire, which he says he yanked off with brute strength when his jack broke, he’s searching in vain for a gas station.
Caroline Banks, Baile de Lacy, Emma Orme.
Eventually, the others (Alex J. Moreno, Emma Orme, and Lambert Tamin) join in, backed by a chorus of three (Caroline Banks, Dana Placentra, and Katelyn Sabet, reduced from the original’s 12), as we hear (or would if there weren’t so many distractions) frequently nihilistic references to  ugliness, gruesome upbringings, consumerism, toxicity, suspicion, conspiracy theories, trolls, normalcy, a cancer-curing cheese, bulldogs, the meaning of our seemingly senseless existence, and man’s decline into “crummy, little, cheesy, lousy, liars, and con-artists.”  

An important mythical element is the Charon-like Boatman (Ryan Leslie Stinnett) who—although not provided here with anything resembling a boat—is coming for the man with the tire after Kat gives him the penny (which was stolen from the Boatman). Much of what is spoken is incomprehensible, not only because of the ambient noise, the long lists of colorful adjectives, or the densely worded discourse, but because they sometimes shout at and over one another. This too is likely part of the agenda.

Wellman’s script reveals considerable wit mingled with numerous provocative notions. Very little, however, comes through in the Flea’s jumbled production. As it proceeded, I couldn’t help observing a whitehaired, well-known reviewer across from me, someone to whom I’ve been saying hello for years only for him to glance at me as if I were not only a stranger but a pest needing swatting. While he could easily be one of Wellman’s disgruntled characters, his grumpy expression throughout so thoroughly matched my own feelings, I was ready to hand him a newspaper with which to swat away whatever he wanted.

Flea Theater/The Pete
20 Thomas St., NYC
Through October 7