Saturday, September 7, 2019

67 (2019-2020): Review: SINCERITY FOREVER (seen September 5, 2010)

"Heads Up"

If you’re planning to kill two plays with one ticket at the Flea Theater in order to see both Bad Penny and Sincerity Forever on the same evening, be aware—as noted in my review of the former—that you’ll need a separate ticket for each.
Amber Jaunai, Nate DeCook, Vincent Ryne. All photos: Allison Stock.
These works, of course, are part of the Flea’s Mac Wellman: Perfect Catastrophes, A Festival of Plays, celebrating the iconoclastically gnarly work of Flea cofounder Wellman, the prolific writer who heads the distinguished BFA Playwriting Program at Brooklyn College.

And, even if you concur with my less-than-enthusiastic response to Bad Penny, the first half of the bill, if you’re planning to see them in succession you’ll likely to find it worth your while to stick around for Sincerity Forever, even though it means killing an hour between the plays in a not particularly engaging part of Tribeca.

Originally produced at the Berkshire Theater Festival, in 1990, where it won an award, and seen later that year in Brooklyn as part of the 1990 Fringe Series, Sincerity Forever was dedicated to the late Senator Jesse Helms “for the fine job you are doing of destroying civil liberties in These States.” This tongue-in-cheek honor presumably led the National Endowment for the Arts to request that Wellman remove the credit he gave it for an N.E.A. playwriting fellowship, with the writer noting in the published script that he “was wrong, SINCERITY FOREVER was not made possible by the generous assistance of the N.E.A. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

This gives you an idea of Wellman’s feisty political heart, which he pours into Sincerity Forever, a stinging, one-act putdown of American life as seen through the preternaturally ignorant eyes of seven teens living in the fictional, Deep South, small town of Hillsbottom. Moreover, most of these drawling characters dress as if Ku Klux Klan sheets and coneheads were standard cool kids gear.

The thinly plotted play's offbeat characters and structure are accompanied by a heightened, sometimes bizarre, blend of redneck locutions, colorfully distorted grammar, colloquial teenspeak, formal rhetoric, and extreme profanity. At the same time, it’s more linear and thematically accessible than Bad Penny. It’s also better directed (by Dina Vovsi) and performed (by the Bats, the Flea’s resident company of young actors-in-training). It’s still weird, though, as well as over-the-top and WTF?

More than half of its eight scenes are conversations among pairs of teens sitting in cars. These are Judy (Malena Pennycook) and Molly (Charly Dannis), who have two scenes together; Hank (Nate DeCook) and Tom (Vince Ryne); Judy and George (Peter McNally); and Lloyd (Jonathan Ryan) and Tom. Another teen, Melvin (Alex Hazen Floyd), joins in later on.

Stirring things up are a pair of disputatious demons from the tribes of Belial and Abaddon: Furball #1 (Zac Porter), wearing a fur vest, and his Goth partner, Furball #2 (Neysa Lozano). Bringing the wrath of God to town, however, is the suitcase-carrying Jesus H. Christ (Amber Jaunai), played here as an angrily intense African American woman.

Frank J. Oliva’s sceneryless stage, nicely lit by Becky Heisley McCarthy, uses little more than plastic milk boxes, with a narrow beam hanging across the stage about two feet from the ground. As the characters talk while sitting directly behind the beam, we discover American youths practically reveling in their know-nothingness. They think that those who profess knowledge are only faking it, and take pride in being “ignorant forever in absolute sincerity.” Sincerity, you see, is a virtue high enough to forgive any other lapses.

Their comically convoluted conversations are larded with references to God’s secret plans, religious faith, their souls, the search for meaningfulness, heaven and hell, death, romantic crushes (hetero and homo), jealousies, coolness, sex, catastrophic ills, like nuclear pollution, and even the purity of their families’ ancestral, Aryan stock, with invocations to the Norse god Wotan (a.k.a. Odin).

The teens believe their lives are being disrupted by the presence of a mystic Furball that must be destroyed. Those fuzzy aliens—who like jiving to a heavy beat—are demons who thrill to their own monstrosity while hating everything these “empty-headed purveyors of the American dream,” with their “fake cant and bullshit,” hold dear. In fact, one insists it’s all “deeply insincere.” On the other hand, they claim sincerity for themselves, even quarrelling bitterly over which is more sincere. Thus, the arrival of Jesus, bearing an “apparatus” that can detect a Furball’s presence and ready to use her mind to obliterate any she might find.
Malina Pennycook, Amber Jaunai, Alex Hazen Floyd, Vincent Ryne.
Wellman enjoys keeping us off guard by playing games with his language and situations, including having characters, once they're infected by the Furballs, repeat dialogue earlier said by others, or even to have them argue using the Furball’s own particular insults. “Something bad’s gotten into us,” admits someone.

Toward the end, the kids go haywire, with a climactic cacophony of overlapping arguments (as indecipherable as those in Bad Penny) before Jesus delivers a lengthy diatribe. She explains her mission, noting “what a sorry place this world is,” blasts everyone for their vanity, hypocrisy, and distortion of Christian values, casts aspersions on “dumb-ass” sincerity, and wonders why she should  even bother with mankind.
Amber Jaunai.
Not all of this comes across clearly, however, nor am I sure I grasped more than a handful of Wellman’s points, but the writing and staging manage to hold the attention much of the time. The KKK costumes, interestingly, seem intended more to symbolize the kind of ignorance that informs American racism than to reflect actual racist behavior. Apart from a few references, like those to Aryan ancestors, or a quickly passing homophobic/anti-Semitic/racist comment, the usual KKK tropes of cross-burnings, lynching, or slurs are ignored.

As noted in my Bad Penny review, Wellman writes for a niche audience—to which I admit not belonging—that greatly appreciates his quirky, nontraditionalism.  But, given Wellman's esteem as a maven of the avant-garde, I sincerely suggest that, for those interested in an important example of late 20th-century “experimental theatre,” Sincerity Forever, unlike Bad Penny, deserves a heads up. 

Flea Theater/The Siggy
20 Thomas St., NYC
Through September November 1