Friday, September 7, 2012

Early Lanford Wilson at the Fringe

American playwright Lanford Wilson and La MaMa impresario Ellen Stewart more or less invented Off-Off-Broadway theatre in New York. Both died last year, a great loss to the theatre community. But their legacies live on, Stewart's in the Lower Eastside institution that remains a hotbed of creative theatrical experimentation, and Wilson's in a oeuvre that spans iconic works like his Talley family trilogy (Fifth of July, Talley's Folly, Talley and Son), The Hot l Baltimore, and Burn This (which Richard and I saw in a stunning New York revival by Signature Theatre starring Catherine Keener and Edward Norton).

But  Wilson, who was also a co-founder of the Circle Rep Theatre Company, also wrote heaps of short plays. Home Free (1964) was one of his earliest, and it premiered last night at the 2012 Fringe Festival, in a production by the local company Staircase XI.

The play bears more than a passing resemblance to Jean Cocteau's novel Les enfants terribles. Like that work, Wilson's Home Free centers on two siblings, Lawrence and Joanna, who have isolated themselves from the outside world, whether as a consequence or because of their apparently incestuous sexual relationship is never made clear. What is clear is that they live largely within their own fantasy world, one that combines both the worst excesses of arrested adolescent development and wishful adult responsibility. Most of these excesses are borne by their imaginary children, Claypone and Edna, with whom they speak throughout, and whom they order about imperiously. None of this bodes well for what we assume is the real child growing inside Joanna's womb, whose imminent birth, we are to understand, will almost certainly lead to their eviction from their cloistered apartment.

What is real and what is imaginary is the central dialectic upon which this drama hinges, and as tensions escalate between brother and sister each (again like their counterparts in Cocteau's novel) knows exactly how to insert the knife wound into the heart of the other by calling into question what he or she most believes in. However, the stakes are high, and when--SPOILER ALERT--the pain in her shoulder Lawrence accuses Joanna of faking becomes seriously life-threatening, the choice the agoraphobic Lawrence makes--to send Edna in search of help rather than going himself--will prove fatal.

All of this is played with absolute conviction by Jason Clift and Maryanne Renzetti (also producer and, with Becky Shrimpton, Co-Artistic Director of Staircase XI). It is not easy in a house as intimate as the Carousel to direct dialogue at imaginary interlocutors downstage while maintaining the theatre's traditional fourth wall--a division crucially important in a psychological drama such as this. It is a credit to both actors--and director Brian Cochrane--that they make us believe in their belief in Claypone and Edna. Kudos as well to whoever designed the set and sourced the props (Co-Stage Manager's Anthony Liam Kerns and Erin Sandra Crowley?), as the look of Lawrence and Joanna's insular world enhances our own sense of entrapment in the dangerous space of their game-playing. A music box that Joanna winds at one point in the play to annoy Lawrence will come back at the end, an eerily perfect acoustic accompaniment to the play's denouement, and to end of childhood innocence more generally.


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