Despite his short-term residence in
Ithaca, Dykstra cannot be called a local author. Dykstra had national
and international (Edinburgh Festival) exposure before his
ecology-themed Clean Alternatives made a strong debut in Ithaca in 2006. Since then the Kitchen has staged his Strangerhorse (2007) and hosted his one-man self-described rant The Jesus Factor
(2007 and 2008), which landed him on Rush Limbaugh’s big-brotherish
“Watch List,” as an artist to be shunned by reactionaries. A rare white
face on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, Dykstra’s voice is his own. Up
close he’s like a cross between David Mamet and Noel Coward, without
the coarseness of the former or the snobbery of the latter. Dykstra
characters speak well but rapidly.
Henry aka Hank (Matthew Boston) is a
moderately successful academic at an unnamed university in Boston,
happily married for 20 years to Parker (Nance Williamson), a business
professional of some kind with perhaps a bit more moxie than her
husband. The set, designed by Brian Prather and lit by E.D. Intemann.
makes the Kitchen’s postage-stamp stage look bigger than we’re used to
seeing, indicative of urban affluence. We see the Boston skyline
(Prudential and Hancock buildings) through a window, and there are
plenty of books as well as upmarket furnishings. With things going so
swimmingly for Henry and Parker, it would seem that there’s no opening
to stick a wedge of tension between them—until the arrival of a
beautiful young blonde with the unlikely name of January Aloha Ireland
Unlike other Dykstra characters, January
is almost wordless at first. Resolved, uncomfortable but nervously
smiling, she will not go away until she gets out something important
she has to say. This moment of ambiguity does not last long, but we can
feel that Dykstra is toying with expectations here, as there has been a
spate of movies about fractious relations between older literature
professors and female students, such as Smart People, Starting Out in the Evening and Elegy.
Working against expectations, a strategy cropping up 10 more times in The Two of You,
is part of Dykstra’s game. January has something bigger to reveal,
which also explains her insistent hesitation. She is Henry’s
unacknowledged daughter from a long-ago, but not forgotten fling. As
soon as Henry hears the mother’s name, Alison Ireland, he knows he was
the sperm donor—or perhaps that should be father, as January hopes to
Interrupting our progress to this point
is a continual rupturing of the fourth wall as Dykstra has all three
characters comment on the construction of the play we are seeing and
the motivation of different speeches and actions. The first model in
many people’s minds for such behavior is Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921).
There the old Italian master wants to show us how much more interesting
art is than life. Here Dykstra draws our attention to his hand and to
remind us of the artifice of what we are seeing. We’re only five
minutes into the action when Henry—or perhaps that should be actor
Matthew Boston—reminds us that the introductory exposition of Parker’s
arrival on the set had been suggested in a workshop. The program tells
us this occurred at the Lark Play Development Center in New York City.
These fourth-wall interruptions can have
the effect of highlighting emotion or thematic development, just as
when, in another play, a character “forgets” a specific word and then
effectively trumpets it when he “remembers” it. Sometimes the
interruptions showcase craft. In one scene Nance Williamson questions
her character Parker’s motivation in a speech and then replays the
scene with virtuosic seamlessness, the way a tailor might repair a
swatch of silk so that we never see where a tear had occurred.
All this attention to artifice comes at
a cost, however. Some will be surprised just how much we can care about
the possibility of the characters’ catharsis if we are so often
reminded that they are being constructed before us. Dykstra’s worst
mistake along this line is January’s overlong oration against
pornography, not from Andrea Dworkin or James Dobson’s point of view,
but that of a young woman like herself. How can she have a relationship
with a young man who’s been conditioned to see women as compliant
erotic automatons, subservient to his every lust? The speech is useful
in explaining why January is seeking out a father, even one who does
not know of her existence. But taking up so much space at the beginning
of the second act, it feels as though it might originally have been
written for another occasion.
Precisely because Dykstra is so often counter-intuitive, the ending of The Two of You can
not be given away, but suffice it to say, he is on the side of love,
unlike Mamet or Coward. What he gives is first amusing and then highly
affecting. The opening night’s packed house rewarded the performance
first with gales of laughter and then not a few tears. The playwright’s
favorite director, Margarett Perry, always knows his rhythms and tones.
We can attribute the rest to the nurturing environment at the Kitchen Theatre: Matthew Boston appeared last year in Dykstra’s Strangerhorse and opposite him (Dykstra is also an actor) in the Perry-directed A Marriage Minuet (2007). Lovely Heather Frase, an Ithaca College student, also appeared in Marriage Minuet. Williamson, while new to this coterie, brings extensive credits from Broadway (Cyrano with Kevin Kline) and Shakespeare productions. Audiences here remember her fondly as the sole performer in Theresa Rebeck’s Bad Dates at Syracuse Stage (2006).
The Two of You touches the heart and the mind. It makes you rethink cliches about love and even more those about the theater.
This production runs through Sept. 21. See Times Table for information.