Kathleen Tolan's The Wax Looks at Sensitive Fortysomethings

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Kathleen Tolan's The Wax is a queer bird of a play. It starts out as a sex farce with an intellectual edge, then seems to lose interest in the whole subject of sex, preferring chatty talk about art, then presses on with its sexual antics anyway, perhaps out of nostalgia, or maybe dramaturgical courtesy. It's written very much in, about and for the mood of reflective people in their 40s, which is to say, smart professionals taking their first deep looks back at their big life choices, feeling the first truly painful pinch of time, and feeling the first hints of waning libido between pangs of unfulfilled waxing.

The piece exudes a merry indifference to the expectations raised by its familiar comic forms. Tolan's ruminative rompers seem to be saying that they already judge themselves more harshly than anyone else ever could, so we should either appreciate the implicit honesty of their clumsy probings and ambivalent gropings or go away.

The action is set in a grimly cheery, pink-trimmed hotel room in a seaside New England town, designed with dead-on, pseudo-B&B quaintness by Walt Spangler. Eight of the nine characters are guests at a wedding there, though how they all know each other and who has gotten married are treated as unimportant and never explained. The characters pair off, start to get steamy, dive predictably under beds or into closets when the inevitable interruptions come, and talk about their problems, mostly unpredictably, with a digressively erudite vagueness. No one is ever remotely disturbed by the fact that every farcical ruse is utterly obvious, or that the promise of privacy in the room is nil at all times. There's a certain imperturbable core under the shenanigans that gives the comedy a peculiar nonchalance.

Infidelity hangs in the air like a general drizzle of restlessness that the wedding has quickened, and everyone in the group is hyperconscious of it. The main problem, it seems, is that they all wish they could muster more enthusiasm for it than they have, which is why the farce keeps getting stalled and sidetracked. This is a world of people too smart and seasoned to abandon themselves to transient pleasures of any sort, so with them farce becomes a trope for a young people's game they're sure they could still enjoy if only they didn't see through it so quickly. The territory is essentially the same as that in Donald Margulies' Dinner with Friends, filtered through a funhouse mirror that blurs and blunts the emotions. At one point, a couple's peeling off of each other's clothes comes to a screeching halt because one of them has the simpleminded gall to say, "I could love you."

The play is too diffuse to gel around a central character, but the best candidate for protagonist is Kate, a lovely poet, unhappy in her marriage, whose random swings between voracious sensuality and remote abstraction are played superbly by Karen Young. In the opening scene, Kate's small talk with her friend Angie, a brash bull-dyke who happens to have long, curly hair, a husband and kids, takes an abrupt literary turn when Kate starts comparing herself to Woyzeck ("I'm just limping in my heavy army boots, resentful, insane. I'm a tragic figure...")?whereupon Angie pulls her into a hot kiss that she doesn't immediately resist. Apart from that kiss, unfortunately, Mary Testa, who plays Angie, displays no sympathetic chemistry either with Young or anyone else in the cast.

The show soon finds a steady tone, though (and picks up on its motif of anomalous erudition), with the entrance of Hal (Robert Dorfman), a composer who left his wife three years ago and has since become a novelist and taken up with a male music and drama critic named Ben (David Greenspan). Hal had risen to modest respectability with his music before he lost faith in his talent, partly due to hearing Alban Berg's opera Wozzeck, as he explains while using the bathroom to wash off the drinks that his ex-wife Maureen keeps spilling on him. With his avuncular, bushy-eyebrowed mien, Dorfman's Hal seems briefly like the play's voice of sanity and objectivity?until the arrival of Ben and Maureen, that is.

His two partners both turn out to be amusing cartoons. Maureen (Laura Esterman) lurches in brandishing her narcotics: a bright red drink to match her vampy red dress and a boombox from which she greedily inhales snatches of Caruso. And Ben sashays in wearing a puke-green suit?a Nixon-shouldered clown who constantly spouts pretentious aperçus at no one in particular. Esterman and Greenspan deserve credit for squeezing considerable sparkle and detail into these figures?she with her odd mixture of hangdog poutiness and pitbull aggression, he with his slackjawed deadpan and earnest, bony-handed gestures.

In the end, though, Ben is too preposterous to be taken seriously as anyone's partner, which is why there's no dramatic tension in Maureen's mission to get Hal into bed again. It's also why Ben's climactic speech explaining his lifelong frustration that a critic is never "seen as a person, a fellow person" ("I may as well go sell shoes") is a dud despite Greenspan's sizzling delivery.

The one wholly convincing relationship is that between Kate and her mathematician husband Christopher (Frank Wood), in whose room the action takes place and against whose damaged "normalcy" all the extracurricular sexual activity is more or less measured. Because of the constant interruptions, these two spend little time interacting directly with each other, and each seems genuinely torn in different sexual directions. They're clearly still drawn to each other, though, and Wood, with that droopy-eyed, long-suffering patience that's become his trademark, is the perfect foil for Young's equivocal allure.

It's too bad Tolan settled for the old chestnut of incompatibility between artist and nonartist as this couple's main problem (each fears the other lacks real respect and enthusiasm for his or her work). It's also evasive for her to make so much of the fluidity of sexual attraction and then wrap the plot up in the neat and venerable bow of heterosexual marriage. (Kate has a brief assignation with a sweet hunk she meets in the bar?charmingly played by Gareth Saxe?but it comes to nothing.) At least the bow comes without a sense of inevitability to it, though.

Interestingly enough, Tolan delays the ending with a scene in which a gruff Russian lady named Lily (Lola Pashalinski) comes in to do a bikini wax on Kate, which she's been expecting the entire play. At this point, Kate has recovered with absurd dispatch from a desultory suicide attempt, most of Chris' clothes have been given away (don't ask), and the room has cleared out so the couple can finally talk. Lily is a cliche, describing herself as unshockable, gushing with pride at the mention of Chekhov and Pushkin, scoffing at the idea that anyone but Russians know what pain is while Kate yowls from the waxing process. What's touching here, though, is the couple's accidental return to the real wisdom of their bodies, as well as their recognition that their feelings run deeper than farce and can't be summed up with, say, quick quotes from Berg or Pushkin (even if that does sometimes turn Kate on).

Crisply directed by Brian Kulick, The Wax, for all its bumps, is the product of authentic searching and, at 90 minutes without intermission, is never boring and often memorably witty. Its biggest problem, I think, is Tolan's failure to settle down and focus on the subject of diffuseness, despite the impressive mileage she gets out of undermining farce. At one point, Kate claims that she has never "felt complete with anyone, not even myself or especially myself," and one has the feeling that Tolan's bigger game was to explore this as a general affliction. Hopefully, she'll have the patience and concentration to do it in her next play.

Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St. (betw. 9th & 10th Aves.), 279-4200, through Jan. 21.


Autoeroticism in Detroit
By Steven Somkin

Leaving a play at intermission is extremely rare for me, but once in a long while I just can't help it. I went to Steven Somkin's Autoeroticism in Detroit because the title reminded me of Sexual Perversity in Chicago, which launched David Mamet's career. As it happens, every word in Somkin's first act sounds like he heard it somewhere else, and every character is patched together from some half-understood cliche. The figures in this tale about an ambitious GM executive who leaves his wife for his son's girlfriend are wholly sawdust, the story has the momentum of an electronics operating manual poorly translated from the Korean, and the overall concept of drama has the originality of a Velveeta sandwich on white bread. I shall waste no more words.

Blue Heron Arts Center, 123 E. 24th St. (betw. Park & Lexington Aves.), 749-3002, through Jan. 28.


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