Richard Foreman's Now That Communism Is Dead, My Life Feels Empty!; Benjie Aerenson's Paradise Island

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Now That Communism Is Dead, My Life Feels Empty! is a title almost too delicious to be followed by a play. Who, after all, would say such a thing? An unregenerate leftist? The tone is too snide. A demoralized McCarthyite? The confessional humor doesn't fit. Think about it: a work with that title could only be about ordinary people?those of us who go about our lives assuming that the old Cold War antinomies are no longer relevant but who nevertheless cope every day with the subtly disastrous voids that our newly triumphal system of capitalist individualism leaves inside us.

And would you want to see that play? With anyone but Richard Foreman, the prospect is as exciting as last week's tv listings. (Indeed, playwright Benjie Aerenson's chief strategy for sketching precisely this sort of ennui in Paradise Island?of which more in a moment?is to weave together endless, dreary strings of pop-culture trivialities, which grow unbearably weightless and redundant within minutes.) The genius of Foreman begins with his ability to magnify the introspective, the seemingly weightless and the utterly ordinary to where they seem more vital and urgent than most of the theater's more conventionally "exciting" subjects.

Like all Foreman's plays, Now That Communism Is Dead is less about a worldly situation than a state of mind. His habit is to begin with his own preoccupations and obsessions, and then write them large as a general condition. The topicality of this latest title is thus a false come-on in a way, because it's really an announcement of a mental field, as was his title Film Is Evil, Radio Is Good in 1987. The two works are similar in that they risk oblique reference to public issues (and the settled allegorical readings that invites) in order to distill them into a sort of diabolical conceptual soup in which the characters (and presumably the rest of us as well) are compelled to swim as the heat is gradually turned up by chefs who bear a curious resemblance to ourselves.

The action in this new piece concerns the parallel anxieties of a pair of alter-ego characters named Fred and Freddie. Fred, played by Jay Smith, has long brown hair and wears a black leather skullcap, white pants with high lace-up boots and a white tux shirt stuffed ridiculously with a pillow and wrapped with a bright red sash; he looks like an orthodontist let loose in an opera wardrobe. Freddie, played by the naturally stout Tony Torn, has long brown hair and wears a bejeweled headband, a red nose, two-tone shoes, a black leather vest and a bright red tie over an ordinary white shirt; he looks like a swishy biker with competing Rocky Horror and Grateful Dead fantasies. Think Spinal Tap gone Soviet-chic.

Flanked by a mostly female chorus in white knickers, facial veils, nylon-stocking head-wraps, wire-rimmed glasses and black bras over bare bellies with reddened navels (the sole man is bare-chested), Fred and Freddie play out a drama of artificial terror and hysteria perpetuated by their own vaguely political, puckish provocations and by occasional interjections by Foreman's booming, Godlike voice: "Red communism is dead"; "I am not a communist"; "There will be no paradise here on Earth, my friend. Please stop dreaming of paradise, here on Earth." With their general slacker-like obliviousness mitigated by bouts of nervous lucidity, the men resemble human lab rats subjected to cruel cosmic experiments that they reflexively duplicate themselves, while trapped in a "cage" slightly less crammed full than the usual Foremanesque space but nevertheless replete with the familiar strings, stripes, chalkboards, crumpled newspapers, Hebrew letters, pillows and lampshades, as well as sandbags on pulleys, large quotation marks in frames and what look like old photos of Russian intellectuals with geometrically arranged bullet holes in their heads. Now and then a fleeting action or a snatch of dialogue makes the pair seem briefly like categorical opposites?say, liberal and conservative, ego and superego, exploiter and exploited, destructive and constructive. But this impression never lasts more than a moment. From the play's first line, delivered by Freddie scrubbing the floor on his knees ("Thank God this terrible job is almost finished, cleaning up this left-over mess"), to the repeated references to abused dogs and the idea of treating people like them, to a minor tussle over Freddie's "private shoes," to the periodic sprints across stage by people carrying red flags, the audience is deliberately teased with invitations to pin everything down to some specific political analysis. Trying to fix it that way, though, is like trying to pick up wet watermelon seeds. The paradigm keeps changing and, in any case, Foreman has no interest in illustrating static positions, or in illustrating anything at all, for that matter.

His purpose, as usual, is to produce a mutating and self-satirizing experience of a present-tense shipwreck, which is why certain critics have knocked him over the years for what they see as his political evasiveness. Anyone so inclined is bound to dislike this piece as well. For my part, I find it a splendidly lucid enlargement of a dismayingly familiar felt reality?what Foreman calls (in a program note) the "nightmare" life we have now locked ourselves into without preserving any opposing utopian dream, a life "in which selfish private pleasure is promoted as the only safe haven...the Messiah never comes and violence seems the only poetry available." The catch is, to appreciate this enlargement, you have to feel it in the circus-like manner Foreman apparently does, which means letting the piece work on you first on the plane of pure showmanship.

Torn gives one of the best performances of his career as Freddie. Slipping disconcertingly back and forth between an idiotic Texas drawl and a bored-grad-student mumble, he works through a remarkable array of doughy-faced grins and sassy glowers while halfheartedly complaining, ineffectually theorizing and sarcastically boasting about his "powerful sarcasm." Smith, too, is superb, able to bounce the verbal ball back to Freddie as if aware of his intentions and reactions before he is. A head taller than Torn, he plays Fred as a sort of fey, underconfident overseer who manages to blend both his phony Russian accent and his insinuating, surfer-dude twang into cacophonous harmony with the show's profusion of recorded crashes, machine-gun blasts, whip snaps, rooster crows and jazzy tape loops. The circus energy in this evening is as high as it ever has been in Foreman's theater.

Ontological Theater at St. Mark's Church, 131 E. 10th St. (betw. 2nd & 3rd Aves.), 533-4650, through April 29.

Paradise Island
By Benjie Aerenson

Anyone who nevertheless still finds Foreman's approach a bit too abstruse and longs for the "straightforwardly" realistic counterpart is advised to get hold of a strong cup of java and head up to Paradise Island at St. Clement's. In this interminable 70-minute piece produced by the New Group and directed by Andy Goldberg, you will find the emptiness and loneliness engendered by materialism and media culture rendered with all the imagination of a surveillance camera.

The story is about an insidiously codependent mother and daughter named Emma and Terri, played by Lynn Cohen and Adrienne Shelly, respectively, who go on a short gambling getaway to the Bahamas, ostensibly to spend quality time together after Terri has moved back in at age 32. They needle, ignore, bully and cajole each other, grating familiarly on each other's nerves, and successfully evade their obvious major problem of parallel addiction (to booze and pills). Terri, a pretty diabetic who binges on sweets, is also suicidally lonely. These are the type of people whose adventures are limited to package vacations and dating services and whose conversation rarely reaches beyond Oprah, Geraldo, jewelry and beauty tips. For them, the O.J. trial, in progress during the play, is an expansion of the universe.

Benjie Aerenson clearly intended the women's inarticulateness and uncomfortable silences to read as a profound figure for lives wasted by limited horizons. Trouble is, he didn't see deeply enough into the causes of their emptiness to make us care about its felt reality. At the early preview I saw, the actors were having difficulty filling out their dull and repetitious interactions with enough variety to maintain a sense of suspense. My guess is that they'll improve over the coming weeks. It's hard to blame them for the basic vacuousness of their clinically accurate but essentially uninsightful dialogue. Sometimes, as Mrs. Freud ought to have said somewhere, an empty glass is just an empty glass.

Theater at St. Clement's, 423 W. 46th St. (betw. 9th & 10th Aves.), 279-4200, through Feb. 25.

The White Devil
By John Webster
Brooklyn Academy of Music (closed)

With the single exception of the actress Angie Milliken, who was fabulously lusty and animated as Vittoria Corombona, the Sydney Theater Company production of John Webster's Jacobean gangster-thriller The White Devil, recently at BAM, seemed to me mostly a disappointing surrender to bombastic overstatement and superficial broad-brushing. This pitiless, harshly satirical, morally anarchic tale of adulterous lovers who ensure that their respective spouses are conveniently murdered is certainly no delicate comedy of manners. But if you can't, or won't, parse its satire into subtler emotional and psychological components than director Gale Edwards does, I don't see the point of reviving it. Bluster just won't substitute for emotionally varied speech where an author has as much to say as Webster does. Maddeningly repetitious lewd gestures won't stand in for felt sensuality. And (especially after so much overuse) a generically fascist design theme won't supply tyrannical terror where the actors haven't generated it with their lines. The famous dying words of the arch-villain Flamineo are: "I have caught/An everlasting cold. I have lost my voice/Most irrecoverably." In this constantly noisy but oddly voiceless staging, they have unintended overtones.

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