trivia questions when a reference comes up about Gertrude Stein and her
usual sidekick. “You know the one: They were lesbian lovers.” “And the
girlfriend had an autobiography and a cookbook.” “Two names and an
initial.” They can’t remember. At this point the audience is in agony.
This is in literary Ithaca, and the first row of the 73-seat Kitchen
Theatre Company is but five feet away from the two performers. Everyone
is biting his or her collective lip to keep from shouting out, “Alice B. Toklas! Alice B. Toklas!” This is how playwright Brian Dykstra, without ever breaking through the fourth wall, pulls viewers into his works.
What we are seeing is Dykstra’s A Play on Words, a world premiere and the fifth item from the author to appear at Ithaca’s Kitchen. His first, Clean Alternatives,
a comedy about ecology, had been seen in Edinburgh and New York City,
before it came three years ago to Ithaca, a city with which Dykstra had
no previous association. Since then Kitchen artistic director Rachel
Lampert has championed Dykstra, and audiences have embraced him. The
opening night for A Play on Words ran an hour and 42 minutes
without intermission. On the testimony of ushers, this is a full 12
minutes longer than the dress rehearsal the night before. The margin
was filled with 12 minutes of audience laughter and reaction time.
In summary A Play on Words doesn’t sound especially funny. Vivian Mercier’s quip about Waiting for Godot, “a
play where nothing happens—twice,” could apply here. In a dreary
suburban back yard, with a green plastic lawn hose and a truck-tire
swing (courtesy of scenic designer Kelly Syring), two men greet each
other as they begin to pass the afternoon. Max (playwright Dykstra) is
an unkempt bear, with an untrimmed beard and his shirttail hanging over
his belt. Bespectacled Rusty (Mark Boyett) wears a trim red tartan
shirt with chinos and carries a newspaper. If you were casting a
production of The Odd Couple, Max and Rusty would be Oscar and Felix. “Hey,” calls out Rusty, “What’s the story?” To which Max growls, “Story? What’s that supposed to mean?” And they’re off.
To a degree, the drama grows out of the
combat between Punch and Judy. They butt heads, and Rusty occasionally
whacks Max with his rolled up newspaper. Both essentially like each
other, although we learn there are some unresolved issues about Max and
Rusty’s sister. The pretext is semantic: what is a speaker really
trying to say with words? Rusty argues that language obscures or even
obliterates meaning, but Max responds that we can determine meaning if
we work hard enough with the words themselves. This gets them into
questions of entomology. Or is it endocrinology? This gets the audience
squirming again, trying to shout out the answer. No, dammit, it’s
Reviewers, including this one, have
compared Dykstra’s dialogue with David Mamet’s. He favors rapid-fire
jabs. And it can never be forgotten that he was a rare white dude who
could compete on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam. For all his previous verbal panache, Dykstra outdoes himself here. The early Tom Stoppard one-act Dogg’s Hamlet plays
some of the same games, although not as well. The rapidity and studied
verbal miscues will remind old-timers of classic Abbott and Costello
routines, but the dissection of everyday expression sounds like vintage
George Carlin. How do you know if you don’t give a hang or a hoot, if
you don’t know what a hang or a hoot is?
Max and Rusty milk these conundrums
nearly as far as they can go before escalating into riskier territory,
such as lengthy alliterative tongue-twisters. Comedy is all in the
timing, and as the tension grows, director Margarett Perry, Dykstra’s
longtime collaborator, drives the pace faster and faster. The men are
only talking, but we see them turning redder and redder, eventually
working up a lather to get the words out.
As we enter the homestretch Max hatches
a scheme out of the Ralph Kramden-Ed Norton playbook. Learning that
there are going to be simultaneous rallies in town by the Republicans
and Democrats, he decides to take action that will exploit Rusty’s
rival verbal acumen. When the crowds from the two rallies reach a point
where they would almost intersect, Max plans to hold aloft a
double-sided poster. On one will be a slogan calculated to rile the
right, on the other are words that will inflame the left. The two sides
will blame the other and thus drive each other from the field. The
conflagration will—presto!—open an era where calm moderation will reign
over all. Cockamamie as it sounds, the contrivance allows Max and Rusty
to end with a crescendo.
Not only is A Play on Words
unlikely to appear on any other local stage, it’s hard to imagine any
other regional players in these demanding roles. Sometimes Dykstra is
writing lines only he can perform. His New York-based pal Mark Boyett,
who last appeared in the Dykstra premiere of Clean Alternatives
in 2006, knows how to handle the furious pace. Both deliver bravura
work, and chances are you’ve never seen anything quite as demanding.
This production runs through March 22. See Times Table for information.
Brian Dykstra (left) and Mark Boyett
in Kitchen Theatre’s A Play on Words.