Amnesia and absurdity fuel the wild plot for SU Drama’s Fuddy Meers
By James MacKillop
In Fuddy Meers, the current production from the Syracuse University Drama Department, our protagonist, sweet, sensible Claire (Jasmine Thomas), avers, “I don’t want to wake up with strangers.” Answering her is a listener of shifting identities, usually known as Limping Man (Max Miller), “That’s what you do every morning.” This exchange comes in the second act, by which time we’re wellgrounded in the premise. Claire (note the pun on “clear” in her name) wakes up each morning as if she had just been born and must learn every person and every thing in her life anew. Danielle Hodgins’ set has already warned us this isn’t going to be simple. Doors and windows are askew in dreamlike surrealism, and the checkerboard pattern in the floor runs in wavy lines. The strangers, Claire will learn, keep getting stranger and stranger.
From a distance the heroine-as-amnesiac must sound like a shopworn shtick, although the renewal each morning is a novel twist. Don’t be misled. Playwright David Lindsay-Abaire was fresh out of the Juilliard School when he premiered Fuddy Meers off-Broadway in 1999. This is a cheeky, insouciant venture from a young smart-ass gleefully breaking all the rules of Playwriting 101. Exposition turns out to be wrong. Scenes look like they’re building to a peak but go “Poof!” in anticlimax. An aged stroke victim is treated as a comic by uttering nearly incomprehensible jibberish, like the title, “Fuddy Meers.”
Then again, playwright Lindsay-Abaire could well have been flattering his teachers, as the most prominent among them was neo-absurdist Christopher Durang of Beyond Therapy and Laughing Wild. A few years after the well-received Fuddy Meers, Lindsay-Abaire found his own very different voice in family drama realism, like Rabbit Hole (a 2007 Pulitzer Prize winner) and this year’s Good People. He hardly feels here like the same man. In this SU Drama Department show, director Craig MacDonald restores Fuddy to its deranged and Durang-ing roots.
We first see an unkempt, king-size bed approached by a man known as Richard (Daniel Burns), who calls the sleeping Claire to awake. Richard tells Claire that he is her husband, and begins the premise that she suffers from a “psychogenic” form of amnesia. With self-conscious repetition, he tells her he’s preparing a book with pictures about her life. Claire hears all news with equanimity, and cheerfully admits that she loves doing find-a-word puzzles, a skill she will need. Downstage from the bed, a surly, pot-smoking teenager crosses and exits. Richard explains that this is their son Kenny (Shawn C. Nabors).
After Richard exits, the covers begin to rise in the far corner of the bed from where Claire has been resting, as if a geyser were shooting up from below. It’s a human figure in a mask, shouting something with a lisp and who also limps. One hell of an entrance, eh? This visual gag is one of perhaps two dozen directorial fillips that MacDonald inserts to punctuate the action, most of which it would be unethical to reveal but, hey, this one happens early and signals the kinds of surprises that are forthcoming.
Limping Man tears off his mask and identifies himself as Zach, with a distorted face, like half of Freddy Krueger. He says he’s there to rescue Claire from Richard, who wants to kill her. Further, Zach claims to be Claire’s brother, and he wants the two of them to meet their mother Gertie (Caroline Wolfson). Her hunched shoulders holding a head covered with gray curls, Gertie speeds along in a splayfooted but arthritic gait. We sense quickly that Gertie does not like Zach, but we can’t figure out why because as a stroke victim she suffers from aphasia, distorting her speech. The more we hear her, Gertie’s words have a kind of Jabberwocky/ Finnegan’s Wake quality in which rhythm reveals an unexpected sense. Her phrase, “Fuddy Meers,” denotes a funhouse mirror, which is also what the play is.
A funhouse mirror could explain the appearance of Zach’s pal Millet (Louis Baglio), a possibly mentally challenged, bulbous, balding fellow in a jacket of Tweety Bird yellow, thanks to costumer Jenaha McLearn. Millet has escaped from prison with Zach, although we cannot figure out what charge would have locked them up. Millet sometimes finds himself at a loss for words, forcing his articulate but foulmouthed hand puppet to take over for him. If your reporter’s ears have served him well, the puppet is known as Hinky-Binky, who soon takes on a more aggressive personality for himself.
Husband Richard, reappearing after an absence, has joined with son Kenny, who now seems more filial, to search for Claire. They are transported behind the mock hood of a 1957 Chevrolet. Players sit stiffly behind the hood on office chairs with well-oiled casters, coached to have their moving legs, which propel the car, remain invisible to us. On opening night, the giddily generous audience of friends and relatives broke into squeals of highdecibel laughter for the car and the hidden motion. Their fun almost obliterated the entrance of a plus-sized woman in a police uniform, Heidi (Blondean Young). She pulls out a gun to escort Richard and Kenny to Gertie’s place, where much of the subsequent action happens.
Fuddy Meers is a twisting tale without much suspense because with all the chaos on stage, we know that, really, anything could happen. Lindsay-Abaire and Mac- Donald still have a rich store of visual surprises and bizarre obsessions, like a phobia for bacon, as well as sharp verbal exchanges. The anfractuous remainder of the plot is a booby trap for anyone trying to explain it. To take but one line, Millet, via puppet Hinky-Binky, tells Claire that some husband used to beat her, making her want to break off with Richard.
Instead, we learn that Richard may not be that culprit. Also, Limping Man’s disfigured face seems to have been caused by Claire.
learning exercise for a university drama department, Fuddy Meers
presents contrasting demands for different student performers, giving
players in the looniest roles—like Louis Baglio as Millet and Max Miller
as Limping Man—the best chance to strut their stuff. Director
MacDonald, sensing the infectious humor in Blondean Young’s delivery,
has her voice-over during the curtain warning (“stifle your cell
phones”), and it gets a laugh. Jasmine Thomas as Claire has the hardest
job, though, absorbing all the madness in her calm spot in the storm;
hers is deeply emotive reaction. Further enhancing the uniqueness of
this production are original compositions by John Burns, Alyssa
Duerksen, Claire Weislogel, Gigi Weislogel, Brian Cimmit and director
MacDonald, who flourishes in a second career as a percussionist.
This production runs through Sunday, Nov. 13. See Times Table for information.