Him

At the Hotel Bostonian through Dec. 20

In the program for the first performance of Him in 1927, E.E. Cummings wrote a whimsical but well-taken warning about his work:

"Relax, and give this PLAY a chance to strut its stuff--relax, don't worry because it's not like something else--relax, stop wondering what it's all 'about'--like many strange and familiar things, Life included, this PLAY isn't 'about,' it simply is...DON'T TRY TO UNDERSTAND IT, LET IT TRY TO UNDERSTAND YOU."

At that time Him was the most futuristic of plays, a theatrical circus aping a carnival world. Cummings' only full-length play is still as exotic and volatile as the brightest contemporary drama. The poet's perceptiveness and wit, conveyed by over 50 characters in 21 scenes, saturates every inch of the Theatre Company of Boston's tiny stage.

Him couples the anguish and irony of the theatre of the absurd with the rowdy frivolousness of vaudeville comedy. Through the story of a young praywright (Him) and a fictional woman (Me)--taking place within an ether-dream experienced by the woman--Cummings writes about himself and everything in his life that he loves, scorns, or wonders about. He has an enormous repertoire of lucid complaints to make--extravagantly phrased complaints about slogans and slang, about psychoanalysis and totalitarianism, about cliches and selfishness and bourgeois conceits.

"I am an Artist, I am a Man, I am a Failure," Him tells Me, and throughout the play he expands on this theme, trying to explain himself to her. In the first and third acts, as the dialogue resonates between curt exchanges and wandering metaphorical soliloquies, the two bicker, muse, pet, and search vainly for common understandings. Their scenes together are separated by snatches of brash caricature in which "three weird sisters" babble deliriously: "Anything, Everything, Nothing, and Something were looking for eels in a tree, when along came Sleep pushing a wheelbarrow full of green mice."

In the second act Him shows Me a play on which he has been working, a string of nine devilish burlesques which the Theatre Company plays to the hilt with hilarious effect. Cummings' satire rapidly shatters several dramatic styles, bits of folklore, hundreds of hollow platitudes and idioms, and the comparatively serious tone of the rest of Him. One sketch has a side-walk hawker selling a miracle cure for a disease called "cinderella." Another, an off-color parody of the "Frankie and Johnnie" legend, is interrupted by a representative of the Society for the Contraception of Vice. The funniest and least subdued skit takes place at "the Old Howard's conception of a Roman Villa," where homosexuality and Mussolini are jointly braised on Cummings' spit; an Ethiopian crap-shooter remarks, "If daze anything worse dan Christians, it certainly am peddyrasts."

Whether or not Cummings intended it to be so, his lowbrow humor is the high point of the evening's entertainment. The slapstick in the second act also cuts the play into three fragments; it is so funny that the audience has trouble readjusting to the alternately tortured and wry self-analyses of Him and Me continued in the third act. After seeing Him two or three times the connoisseur might learn to prefer Cummings' obscurer opening and closing acts to the exuberant shenanigans in the middle. At first sitting, however, the second act serves up Cummings' garish tastes and insights in more palatable form.

The Theatre Company of Boston gives Him a superb production under the direction of David Wheeler. Burris deBenning and Moira Wylie play the talkative roles of Him and Me with graceful assurance. The rest of the cast excels in comic parts of every description, doing full credit to Cumming's vertiginous imagination, "talking very beautifully" (as Me tells Him) in the poet's acrobatic language. Paul Benedict, a ubiquitous master of trades, is especially amusing as a drunkard, soap box orator, prude, interloper, private eye, gentleman, freak show barker, and Mussolini.

A wonderfully plastic set designed by Alexander Pertzoff reduces the awkwardness of frequent scene changes. The same technical skill appears in the music, costumes, and artwork.

Cummings asks his audience to cast off cherished preconception so that they can feel the world with his own sardonic intellect and agile senses. "Whenever a stuffed platitude hits you in the exaggerated emphalos," Cummings counsels, "respond with a three-fisted aphorism to the precise casazza." If that advice does not offend you, the Theatre Company of Boston will delight you with its production of Him.