The Broadway season came to an end last night not with a bang but an unbelievable piece of idiocy called "My Thing of Love."
From the very beginning, with Laurie Metcalf picking her face, Alexandra Gersten's play has an adolescent quality apparent even in the title, with its awkward suggestiveness what, after all, is a "thing" of love?
From the husband telling his wife to stop picking her face, the play leaps quickly to the wife accusing him of infidelity. He counterattacks by reminding her she doesn't like the way he handles her breasts. There is a seeming reconciliation. He kisses her. He starts to fondle her breasts. They both draw back.
This is not real life. It's sitcom, where no one is allowed to have simple human responses. There can be only wild double takes, incessant posturing, pronouncements from high horses, all of which fall flat without a laugh track.
There's not really a plot, only pretexts for quasi-farcical situations. The mistress shows up. The wife mistakes her for a school guidance counselor she has been expecting. The counselor shows up and within a few minutes is singing children's ditties to the mistress.
You can't really call what the actors do acting, because that presumes actual characters or human situations. It would be more accurate to call it histrionics, which implies exaggeration and staginess.
Metcalf's performance is so mannered it is impossible to have any sympathy for the character. As her husband, Tom Irwin is also forced beyond the point where he is believable. Mark Blum has a sweet quality as the goony guidance counselor. Jane Fleiss, who only joined the cast last week, makes the mistress occasionally human - clearly she did not have enough time to acclimate herself to the excesses of her fellow cast members.
Like last season's moronic "The Rise and Fall of Little Voice," this play comes to us from the Steppenwolf Company of Chicago. Only a decade ago, I thought the salvation of the New York theater lay in Chicago. Yes, a lot of what Chicago sent us was adolescent, but I thought that pubescent energy might be useful. Alas, based on what has come since, Chicago theater has only become more adolescent.
There are quite a few perfectly professional plays out there which could do with the services of those amiable gentlemen known as play doctors. These are the shrewd and hardened technicians who hopefully can fix the laughs in the first act and everything but the plumbing in the second.
But Alexandra Gersten's new and savagely abrasive comedy "My Thing of Love," which opened at the Martin Beck Theater last night doesn't need a play doctor. It needs a play psychiatrist.
The play is a manic-depressive schizophrenic. It doesn't need reviewing so much as it needs therapy. That doesn't mean that deep down - down where it matters - it's bad. Just mixed up.
Gersten is trying to dissect the anatomy of a very unhappy marriage, and trying to see the funny side of it. But there is no funny side to it. You can make a simple farce out of adultery, but not a simple comedy.
What is apparently Gersten's first play proves extraordinarily (eventually frustratingly) promising, but her inexperience has permitted her to drop it down impossibly in some distressingly bizarre no-man's land between reality and sit-com. It will make no one entirely happy, and leave no one entirely comfortable.
Her story is superficially sitcom stuff. Jack (Tom Irwin) comes down to breakfast one morning, and finds his wife, Elly (Laurie Metcalf), in an oddly perverse mood. It's turned out she has caught him in a little peccadillo, which he first tried to deny then, confronted with handwritten evidence, confesses.
A week passes. The little peccadillo, Kelly (Jane Fleiss), goes visiting, calling on the beleagued Elly. The tone is darkening, but soon it is relieved by the second act entrance of a clownish school inspector (Mark Blum) who does an excellent vaudeville act while investigating what is clearly the seriously disturbed behavior of the couple's two children.
The following weekend - same house, this time the bedroom. Elly and the children are away, and Jack is in bed with his mistress, Kelly, when he hears a noise that might be an intruder...
Gersten can really and truly write. She can offer lines like "I can't wear mittens - they make me feel pathetic." Or have a character reply to "What are you thinking?" with "I don't want to know." The trouble is that while she can write she can't quite decide what she's writing.
Elly is a deeply disturbed woman, Jack is blunted into brutishness, the abused children are a mess, and the pitiful mistress a perfect victim. Yet whenever this reality intrudes, Gersten clubs it over the head with a smartish, childlike joke that undercuts it straight back to the TV sit-com's often semi-literate if sometimes pretentious world.
Metcalf does a dazzling turn as the antic Elly - her moods twisting from ironic nuttiness to black, almost suicidal despair. Irwin is a little less comfortable as the passion-thwarted cad, but like Fleiss as the silly but not mean-hearted mistress, he goes hard for the character. And Blum turns all the right daft somersaults as a swift comic diversion.
"My Thing of Love" will please audiences if it manages to get to them. Meanwhile, Gersten - a playwright we will hear much more of - will have learned the valuable lesson that you can't have it both ways. At least not simultaneously.
Racing against the clock and bucking a last-minute cast change, "My Thing of Love" opened at the Martin Beck Theater last night in time to qualify for this year's Tony Awards -- the official Tony year ended at midnight. The comedy, written by Alexandra Gersten, should have waited a little longer, maybe until 1999.
The play was originally produced at the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago in 1992, when it won the Joseph Jefferson Award as the best new work of the year. Yet from the evidence on view at the Martin Beck, it's still unfinished. "My Thing of Love" is high-strung, unable to concentrate, neurotic and possibly schizoid. Whatever the diagnosis, it withdraws into itself even as the audience watches, finally to suffer a complete breakdown.
The only reason it hasn't been put away seems to be the presence of Laurie Metcalf, the much-appreciated television personality who heads the cast. Ms. Metcalf, a founding member of Steppenwolf, is a good stage actress. She's also a veteran of seven seasons on "Roseanne" and a three-time Emmy winner for her role as Jackie, the sister of the show's star.
Even if you had somehow missed her every time you tuned in to "Roseanne," you might suspect her association with the show in the performance she's giving at the Martin Beck. Ms. Metcalf is seriously committed to what she's doing, though her character always appears to be at a slight remove from the circumstances in which she finds herself, much like Roseanne.
"My Thing of Love" is about a horrendous, lower-middle-class suburban marriage, and what Elly (Ms. Metcalf) doesn't do to get out of it and why she doesn't. Her indecision, I take it, is the subtext, since Ms. Gersten never directly addresses the subject. She only presents the circumstances.
Elly and Jack (Tom Irwin) have been married 11 years when she discovers he's having an affair. He makes no apologies except to say that he's breaking it off and, beside that, he's bored with their lives. With a lot of sarcastic prodding by Elly, he admits that he loathes their routine, her coffee and the lower part of her face, from which her put-downs emerge. He doesn't want a divorce, just forgiveness.
Jack is a flaccid, self-pitying creep, but he has a way with Elly that brings her around. Within a few minutes they are happily reminiscing about the good old days, when he left his first wife to go after Elly.
The play's two other characters are Jack's dim new girlfriend, Kelly (Jane Fleiss), whose brother has recently fallen down an elevator shaft to his death, and Garn (Mark Blum), a teaching supervisor who comes to the house to talk about Elly and Jack's daughter Kate.
They have two daughters, both of whom have always just stepped out whenever the lights come up. Kate is the one who urinated into the ice-cube tray. At school she seems to have leaped onto a desk and shouted, "Wake up, you bastards, the bomb's coming!"
"My Thing of Love" isn't a black comedy: it's gray. Sometimes it seems like a feminist's worst nightmare. Frequently it sounds like the very long mid-section of a sitcom episode. It has no clear beginning and no end in sight when the performance is over. Mostly it unravels in Elly's one-liners ("I can't wear mittens -- they make me feel pathetic"), or by having her sardonically modify what someone else has just said.
The jokes don't reveal Elly's character, they only reinforce our awareness of her fury, which, except for one tantrum when she breaks up the bedroom, remains impotent. The play is as indecisive as she is.
So, too, is this production. Though Michael Maggio is still listed as the director, he departed before the opening and Howard Davies, the director of the recent "Translations," has been giving the cast notes. During the rehearsals, Mr. Irwin replaced the actor originally playing Jack, while Ms. Fleiss took over the role of Kelly last week. The little girls cast as Elly and Jack's daughters were written out of the play at some earlier point.
In the midst of this chaos Ms. Metcalf succeeds in giving as coherent a performance as is possible with the material. The other actors are unflappable. For the time being, everyone carries on.
To say "watch out for Alexandra Gersten" is to caution literally as well as figuratively: She's a playwright with an urgent voice that demands to be heard, and she takes no prisoners. Her first play, "My Thing of Love," closes out the Broadway season with a devastating X-ray of a marriage ripped apart by betrayal, put over in a ferocious performance from Laurie Metcalf as a suburban mom whose world is shattered by her husband's infidelity.
Metcalf could bring any season to life. She exudes energy onstage, and she has an innate gift for connecting with an audience.
Still, the production betrays the scars of a troubled gestation. Director Michael Maggio withdrew as previews were getting under way; two of four key roles were recast, one at the last minute; and there is a rudderless quality to the perfs that suggests the absence of a discerning hand on the tiller: Both the playwright and her star could have used some editing.
Those who come to see "My Thing of Love" will probably go away happy and may even recommend it. But for all the funny lines, the play has a dark soul, and the production is more than a little lost in the Martin Beck.
It begins with the not-altogether-appealing scene of Metcalf's Elly popping a pimple at breakfast before apprising husband Jack (Tom Irwin) that she's discovered he's having an affair. What ensues is a confrontation so raw as to be embarrassing: Gersten has her characters speak with the silly self-importance of the damned.
Soon, however, Jack is promising to end the affair, and Elly is torn between her desire to keep marriage and family together and the reality that nothing can ever be the same for her again. The first act ends with the appearance of Kelly (Jane Fleiss) -- the other woman -- who is joined in the second act by an idiotic but sinister guidance counselor (Mark Blum) from the school where one of Jack and Elly's daughters has been disrupting things with strange outbursts.
Metcalf is a force of nature -- actually, too much of a force of nature. She goes so over the top with the tics and grimaces that she sometimes appears to be suffering from Tourette's syndrome.
Fleiss does her best with the thankless part of the pretty young thing who is totally out of her depth dealing with someone as fast and smart as Kelly. Gersten doesn't completely stack the deck against Jack, and Irwin makes the most of every morsel thrown him, though Jack is a rat from start to finish. Blum, reduced to singing kiddie ditties, plays the guidance counselor as if such a man really existed.
John Lee Beatty's sets perfectly capture that middle-American style of decor best described as taste-free. Howell Binkley's lighting is strange only in that it's always dark outside.
Gersten has written a good, unsettling play; it's not much fun, but it will surely have couples discussing some charged subjects. The play demands the intimacy of one of Broadway's smaller theaters. Nevertheless, it's a welcome addition to the season and a gutsy undertaking.