We thought we knew what dark comedy is. The audience is supposed to squirm, feel a bit uneasy and then smile with teeth clenched. Redhouse director Stephen Svoboda wants you to know that even in the face of certain death, from ovarian cancer or AIDS, it’s OK for you to laugh at dark comedy. Not just snigger and chuckle, but guffaw with wet-your-pants abandon.
This is a risky strategy, beginning with the Redhouse’s current linking of two plays written at different times by different people: Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning W;t, already well-known, and Paula Vogel’s Baltimore Waltz, widely produced in regional theaters, but making an area premiere here. As announced, both works treat with the theme of grief as do the sculptures upstairs in the Joan Lukas Rothenberg Gallery by distinguished local artist Arlene Abend. Svoboda reverses the oft-quoted line from Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias: We make our way through abundant laughter to shed some tears.
The casting of Laura Austin as haughty but doomed literature professor Vivian Bearing in W;t (produced on Broadway in 1999) is the keystone that allowed the arc of this venture. In her many appearances with the company, we’ve seen that she brings a dozen strengths, all required here. With her many nights of comic improv, as well as her October appearance in Assassins, she’s proven again and again that she delivers the razor-sharp timing to make an audience laugh.
Utterly fearless, Austin can make herself look as horrible or frightening as possible. Not only is her head shaved, but the blanched makeup allows her to impersonate death 15 minutes before the script calls for it. And as an experienced Shakespearean, she brings depth to Vivian’s choices and her moral growth: “I thought being extremely smart was enough—but now is a time for kindness.”
Vivian’s self-obsession and coldness (no lover, no friends) could easily make her a person to disdain. On the subject of vomiting, she says, “If I did barf my brains out, it would be a great loss to my discipline.” As an imperious critic of the most demanding English poetry, she recoils at the emptiness of conventional greetings: “How are you today?” “I’m dying—that’s how I am.” Implicitly, there’s a Beckettian bleakness in the exchange, diminished here, a key to the way Svoboda is handing both plays. Austin’s Vivian gets a huge laugh from these and comparable exchanges and also wins us to her side.
Although the haste and occasional confusion of the hospital staff can give them a Keystone Kops quality, they are by no means villains. Autocratic Dr. Kelekian (William Edward White) is portrayed as a professional counterpart to Vivian. (White also appears unbilled in a flashback as Vivian’s father.) More sympathetic are a nurse, Suzie (Kate Metroka), and an intern-former student of Vivian’s, Dr. Posner (Adam Perabo).
It is through them and a former professor seen in flashback, E.M. Ashford (Binaifer Dabu), that we learn of Vivian’s central conflict. It is in the metaphysical poetry she studies by Anglican clergyman John Donne, who penned the line “Death Be Not Proud.” While it is one thing to grasp what Donne was writing by seizing upon the important difference between a comma and a semicolon (thus the title), the reader of the poem must also face the issue of life after death. When Vivian is unconscious on what will be her deathbed, Posner, her former student, refers to her “Salvation anxiety.”
Like a distant relative of Ebenezer Scrooge’s, Vivian’s comprehension of mortality turns her away from aggrandizing the self and toward accepting love and kindness. Her old mentor Ashford, who may or may not be sitting on her bed, explains candidly what Donne was saying in a classic children’s book, The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown. She moves past language to grasp meaning
Paula Vogel’s Baltimore Waltz appeared first off-Broadway in 1992 and won an Obie on its revival in 2004. As a program note explains, the work is candidly autobiographical as the playwright’s brother died of AIDS in 1987 while she was teaching in Baltimore. In the play, Carl (Adam Perabo) is a San Francisco librarian diagnosed with AIDS who plans an end-of-life grand tour of Europe with his sister Anna (Kate Metroka), when he learns that she is also suffering from a fatal disease. It’s ATD for Acquired Toilet Syndrome, something that afflicts only elementary school teachers who sit on the wrong commode. (If you Google this absurdity, you’re missing Carl and Vogel’s point). Anna then sets out to enjoy as much sex as she can, making up for lost time—before all time vanishes.
In a preview night talkback, director Svoboda explained that his students, in classes before his arrival in Syracuse, had difficulty with the text of the printed play. Action is so fast-moving that some scenes run no more than two pages. Both Carl, who’s exaggeratedly swishy, and Anna are portrayed through the distorted lens in which homophobes might see them. Anna’s humping voyage is a parody of the promiscuousness attributed to gays.
More challenging still is Vogel’s device of embellishing the journey with images from Anna’s pop-culture drenched mind. As the goal of the quest is to seek guidance of a renowned psychiatrist in Vienna, Anna thinks inevitably of the foreign intrigue of Vienna in the Carol Reed-Graham Greene movie The Third Man (1949), complete with Anton Karas’ obsessive score for the zither, rather than the Vienna of Dr. Freud or Gustav Klimt.
“Third Man” is also the name for the third speaking actor in Baltimore Waltz, John Bixler, who plays every other character who ever pops up, starting with an officious physician in Baltimore, an abrupt TSA agent at the airport, and as Harry Lime, the third man in a black fedora with the zither plinking away. Bixler has been a familiar figure around the Redhouse in the Svoboda era, memorably as the frustrated aunt-murderer in Vigil (May) and Samuel Byck, the thwarted presidential murderer in Assassins. This is an invitation for bravura performances of the Alec Guinness-Peter Sellers template, and when Bixler seizes this opportunity he runs with it. Like Laura Austin in W;t, Bixler is the only Equity player in his show and the sina qua non of it.
Supporting the leads, the Redhouse continues the admirable practice of casting top community theater players in this professional production. Kate Metroka and Adam Perabo, the only actual repertory players, delight in coming off so differently in the two productions. The diminutive Binaifer Dabu and the massively imposing William Edward White contribute distinctive presences and tones.
Vogel’s demand of our suspension of disbelief is that we go along with the dream journey in Anna’s mind. For a reviewer to suggest otherwise would be like identifying the killer in Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap. The script continues to make suggestions, however, to prepare us for a revelatory insight. Bixler’s Third Man never takes off his rubber gloves. Carl is always clad in his pajamas. And when Anna sends home shots of the cathedrals of Europe we see pictures of storefront churches in Baltimore.
There might be three dozen scene changes in Baltimore Waltz (who can count that fast?), which in a show of 120 uninterrupted minutes means a farce-styled pace. In place of slamming doors, Svoboda prefers a rapidly sliding white scrim that also serves as a screen for projected images. The thing zips by so often that scrim-puller and orderly Mattie Voorhies is credited in the program. As both Baltimore Waltz and W;t co-exist on Tim Brown’s set, the scrim also gets a few pulls in the other play, too.
If Svoboda had never juxtaposed them, it seems unlikely that they would ever be produced together. As Edson’s W;t is already better-known, the audience gets it more readily. It’s a big turn from giddy hilarity, but Austin and Svoboda take us there securely. Baltimore Waltz is deliberately disorienting to make us challenge assumptions, just as Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive was. The text is both symbolic and politically charged. Carl has his students cut out pink triangles for themselves, and his stuffed rabbit (his sexuality) has the colors of the rainbow flag.
With these productions the Redhouse, the professional theater at the edge of Armory Square, defines itself more sharply: hip and gutsy.
The productions run through Feb. 2. See Times Table for information.