We have all seen people behave as do the Characters in Duncan Foley's Three A.M.; most of us have behaved that way ourselves. A boy and a girl, alone in the boy's apartment, go through a ritual we have all performed, whether in our own apartments or over coffee in the Bick. More confederates than adversaries, they engage in ironic and highly artificial conversation, as a means of testing each other, of feeling each other out, of becoming acquainted.
The sexual tension is admitted, then pushed to one side--as the boy says, "I sort of forgot it." In fact he does not forget it, nor does she, but if they are to get to know each other, they must pretend that they do. They develop injokes between themselves, as a safer way to experiment with intimacy. And they find new words for feelings that are too embarrassing to call by their real names, or whose names are hollow: "Hell," says the girl near the end of the play, "I love everybody. You I like."
The girl, we are told, is a "pretend person," the boy a "truth person." But these titles rather signify what gambits they use than what sort of people they are. "Let's pretend there's a fire," the girl says. "I am an inferior student of English literature, concentrating in an inferior period," says the boy. And as with the question of whether they will sleep together, they admit the ploys, and then pretend they do not exist.
This boy and girl speak the courtly language of our generation, and in the timing of every line we can hear ourselves. Each allusion seems apt to us, each gesture familiar. After half a summer of trying to understand the emotions of witty Elizabethans and mad medieval kings, it is refreshing to see a play one does not have to work at. But it is hard to say whether the acting--or the play itself--is good or bad.
I do not think the acting was very inspired, though the audience laughed a great deal; and I do not think the play is very good, though it was enjoyable to watch. It is hardly fair to criticize Richard Gebow and Lois Wilson, and Director Alfred Guzetti, for they had to put the show together in less than a week, but it is interesting to see why the more than adequate job they did was not quite right. Amusing as it was, the play never seemed to jell; I think the key was the actors' timing.
The humor of most lines in a play depends upon what the audience expects a character to say. Sometimes an actor can get a laugh by answering wittily and quickly, when the audience expects him to be mute. Much of Moth's humor in Love's Labor's Lost, for example, stems from the fact that he is not at all cowed by his impressive master, Armado. Another actor can get his laugh by taking longer than the audience to figure out a situation. The Clown's humor in The Winter's Tale works on this principle.
But timing is also an important factor in characterization. And an actor should be aware--or the director should tell him--what kind of character he is projecting by timing his lines as he does. The trouble with Miss Wilson and Gebow was that they did not seem to have decided.
Consequently, although they got laughs quite regularly, it was not because they had defined their characters so precisely that the audience could see what they were thinking--as is necessary in a play set in another period--but because the audience was so familiar with the various characters they portrayed. If Miss Wilson waited overlong before saying something, and spoke in a vague tone, the audience responded to her as to other ingenues they had known. If at the next moment she retorted quickly, they rejoiced at the sharp cliffie they saw in her. So with Gebow. If at one moment he seemed honestly disillusioned and at another to be using his cynicism as a ploy, it did not matter. As the boy and girl speak in such familiar language, the audience could adjust quickly to whatever sort of boy and girl Gebow and Miss Wilson seemed at any moment to be.
Admittedly, in a play where the characters are trying on masks the audience should be allowed to wonder for a while what they are really like. But eventually their personalities should emerge from beneath the pretense. The two actors in Three A.M. could not do that, however, for they never seem to have decided what their characters' personalities were. Certainly Foley does not give the much help. The play moves from topic to topic, from joke to joke. No pattern really emerges. The only development necessary is that the girl get gradually drunk enough to pass out immediately after announcing she will sleep with the boy. But Guzzetti might have had Gebow and Miss Wilson try something, if only to give the play a little more coherence.
I can think of one slant, in fact, that the text would probably justify. Guzzetti might have made the girl something older than the boy, inclined to drink too much, and cherishing an image of herself as a sensitive young thing that is wrong by about eight years. She is, after all, a "pretend person," and her reference to herself as a Tennessee Williams heroine who "can't stand anything vulgar" might have been followed up. The boy, a nervous and disillusioned "truth person," who does not recognize her need to be seduced, might have been portrayed as a good deal less perceptive than he thought he was.
Luigi Pirandello's A Dream (Yet Perhaps Not) is a very strange play indeed. The scene opens on a woman asleep on a couch, with her lover standing over her. The strange light tells us she is dreaming. In a sequence of short scenes, we see the history of her liason with the man. Finally she wakes, her lover arrives, and they play a short scene together. I do not think the play really works, for no present-day audience is prepared for the stopped action, odd lighting effects, or the projection of a movie on the cyclorama that Pirandello calls for. Perhaps if one were familiar with these techniques the play would turn out to be a very good one. But as it is, it is hard to evaluate, to direct or to act in.
In pairing this play with Three A.M., Guzzetti decided it would be interesting to use the same actors in both plays. It certainly is, and provides an excellent example of the educational value of a theater like the Ex. Gebow and Miss Wilson had to play characters much different from those in Foley's play on almost an identical set, to the same audience, and after only a twenty minute intermission. In the process they gave striking evidence of the manifold means of characterization.
Miss Wilson, for example, played a very elegant woman. For the most part she did a good job. She did not fidget; she sat with her back very straight and her chin held about an inch above normal; she had a reserved smile. But when she walked she put her shoulders forward a little, and when she stood, she placed her feet about 15 inches apart. Those two items jarred. The woman she was playing would have walked and stood otherwise, though her stance was fine for the girl in Three A.M.
Beyond defining their characters in Dream, the actors must run through a number of intense emotions. Miss Wilson had to display several varieties of guilt, Gebow the anger and the anxiousness of a lover who is unsure of his mistress. Reading the play it is hard to see how Pirandello expects any actors to express everything he puts in the directions, with the few lines they are given in some places.
There is a pretty specific point to this play, as to much of Pirandello's work, which might be summarized in the playwright's own words, printed on the program: "Whoever understands the game can no longer fool himself, but if you cannot fool yourself, you can no longer derive an enjoyment or pleasure from life. So it goes." I am not sure how Guzzetti might have better elucidated this point, whether in his director his management of the special effects. His production certainly was ingenious, however, considering the Ex's tiny budget.