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A CurtainUp Review

Two One Act Plays: Mud and Drowning
By Les Gutman

Once again, Signature Theatre embarks on a season devoted exclusively to the work of a single playwright. For its 1999-2000 season, its choice is the Cuban-American playwright, Maria Irene Fornes. For thirty plus years a foundation of New York's downtown theater, Fornes may seem an off-beat follow-up to Signature's more mainstream examinations of recent years. But, as these first two offerings reveal, the work of Ms. Fornes is actually quite comfortable flowing in the Chekhovian streams frequented by Signature's last several subjects, John Guare, Arthur Miller and Sam Shepard: complexly-structured family-like groupings and unfulfilled dreams. 

Mud and Drowning could almost be called oil and water they are so different. Mud is hyperrealistic and ugly; Drowning, as symbolically elegant as the Botero paintings its potato-like characters bring to mind. While Mud explores a distinctly female search for self-identification, Drowning is a decidedly male meditation. Yet Mae (Deirdre O'Connell), in Mud, could easily have expressed Pea's (Marc Damon Johnson) most compelling pair of lines in "Drowning: "Do you know what it is to need someone?... What is it that makes someone a link between you and your own life?"

Fornes's work seeks to engage its audience in sometimes unconventional ways. Joseph Conrad wrote that, in contrast to the thinker or scientist, an artist speaks to "the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts, to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men to each other." Such is the painterly nature of  the Obie-winning Mud

Some will find Mud a better "read" than sight to behold. It is not a pretty picture, and here David Esbjornson gives it a staging that minces no images. But, as Conrad also said,  "the artist appeals to that part of our being which is not dependent on wisdom... and, therefore, more permanently enduring." As the assault of rapid-fire scenes Fornes unleashes on us start to sink in, and the raw power of their base, violent, unpleasant, indeed repulsive, vulgarity recedes, it is the stunning, expressive portrait of Mae that seems most durable. It is drawn with words that shift repeatedly from the most visceral to the incredibly poetic. 

Set in a small town in the 1930's. Mae's ungainly journey of self-discovery takes place on a sexual battlefield. Dirt-poor and uneducated, she has lived since childhood with Lloyd (Paul Lazar), brought into the house by her father as an act of kindness and also to give Mae some company. Lloyd is now a slow-thinking, usually vile and cantankerous man who suppresses any urge to take care of himself, much less better himself. The hard-working Mae wants and deserves more. She is studying arithmetic, and trying to learn to read. She takes care of Lloyd as a wife would, although the evolved nature of their relationship is more the result of animalistic circumstance than conscious choice.

She strives for a less hollow existence, and believes she has found it in an older, (somewhat) more educated townsman, Henry (John Seitz). With Henry, her mind becomes occupied with thought. She has him move in; Lloyd is exiled from the bed but not from the house. The situation is never less than uncomfortable: Lloyd baits, Henry condescends, there are accusations about stealing money. Then Henry falls and becomes paralyzed; Lloyd is freakishly ecstatic, Mae increasingly dejected. But she has resolved to leave, to make a life of value for herself. It is not to be.

All three actors are exceptional. O'Connell finds both Mae's rough exterior and the soft determination that lingers just beneath. Lazar's even more difficult task reveals Lloyd's nature without rendering it divertingly eccentric. He is also splendid in his reaction, often silent, to what transpires, as when he lies curled under the kitchen table as Mae brings another man into their life. Seitz is able to open Henry's rather small window on the world effectively in the early scenes, and gamely shift into the particularly unpalatable demands on him as Henry deteriorates. 

There's nothing unpalatable about Drowning. It is a brief, poignant work, closer to a staged poem (or is it a painting?) than a play. At its center is Johnson's rich, warm performance as Pea, as he sits at a cafe table with Roe (Philip Goodwin) as they wait for Stephen (Jed Diamond). But the story's arc is not staged: it has to do with a woman's picture Pea sees in the newspaper, his vanquished quest for her and the insight it produces. 

If love is ephemeral, it is not so much as this little petit four of a play. It is worth seeing for Teresa Snider-Stein's breathtaking costumes (prosthetics by Den Design Studio) alone. The remainder of the design elements, if less remarkable, are quite fine.

There is a large poster in front of the theater containing praise for Maria Irene Fornes from one of her playwright predecessors at Signature, Sam Shepard: "Irene Fornes is one of those rare total theatre artists who seems to have almost disappeared from the American Scene... the real deal, believe you me." There's a nagging feeling she's so real we can't deal. Stay tuned. There's plenty more where this came from.

Note: Signature's Fornes season will continue November 23 through December 19 with Enter the Night and a world premiere (as yet un-named) February 8 through March 5, 2000. 
By Maria Irene Fornes
with Deirdre O'Connell, Paul Lazar and John Seitz<

by Maria Irene Fornes 
>with Marc Damon Johnson, Philip Goodwin and Jed Diamond<

Directed by David Esbjornson
>Set Design: Christine Jones 
Lighting Design: Scott Zielinski
Costume Design: Teresa Snider-Stein
Sound Design: John Kilgore
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes with no intermission
Signature Theatre, 555 West 42nd Street (10th/11th Avs.) (212) 244-PLAY

Opened September 26, 1999 Closing October 10, 1999
Reviewed by Les Gutman 9/27/1999 based on a 9/23/1999 performance
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