The Nature and Purpose of the Universe and 'dentity Crisis
Directed by Aline Brosh
Produced by Sean O'Brien
Written by Christopher Durang
At Dunster House tonight and tomorrow.
FOR OLD CATHOLIC school boys and girls, the charms of blasphemy and dirty words never wear off. Joyce might have thought he was attacking his old Irish Catholicism in his novels, but Irish Catholics, who've made him a national hero since, know better. Perhaps it's single-sex schooling that does the trick.
Anyway, when Durang decided in The Nature and Purpose of the Universe to revamp the tale of Job for the modern American housewife, he decided to fill it with as much Catholic sacrilege and sexual deviation as he could fit into an hour-long production. Which could be okay, even for the supposed-to-be offended Catholics. All my ex-altar boy friends really get off on this kind of thing.
In this film, however, Durang's heresy is dull, and his perversions are pat. When this set of plays appeared in Dublin, the Irish, who always celebrate really good sacrilege with a riot, responded with a universal yawn. Some Boston Catholics are more uptight about Durang, and they make the controversy that sells the tickets. But controversy can't hold up a chaotic script whose absurdity is less than comic.
Director Brosh knew that the absurd plight of Eleanor Mann's family had to be acted out with comic melodrama. But, as it has often been said, it takes very good acting to portray bad acting well. And unfortunately, the actors portraying the Mann family and their various persecutors aren't quite that good, so that the audience isn't sure how much of the bad acting is intentional. Indeed, it is a relief when the melodrama is dropped, and Eleanor opts for more sincere tones.
Best by default are Thomas E. G. Hale as Ronald and Jacqueline H. Sloane as Elaine May Alcott, who play God's practical jokesters on earth. Sloan must create a huge variety of characters who torment Mrs. Mann, and though she doesn't quite get them all, it's great seeing how much she does pull off. I mention Hale because, while his role is admittedly unstraining, he, at least, doesn't stumble over it.
AFTER THE unstructured miniscandalizers of Nature and Purpose, it is nice to return, if briefly, to the more familiar realm of Twilight Zone twists in 'dentity Crisis. Jane (Marjorie Ingall) has a problem. She is a sane person in an insane world. Fortunately, psychotherapy has a cure. Everybody plays insanity soberly and satisfactorily straight in this one. And Jane's sullen paranoia is relatively refreshing, even if the play's conclusion is somewhat unsatisfactory.
But this concluding pause that refreshes still leaves the audience with a collective headache. If the message produced a migraine, a headache might mean art. But the annoyance seems to lie in the media, not the message.