Smashing the Sidewalk

Gemini By Albert Innaurato Directed by Peter Mark Schifter at the Charles Playhouse

ALBERT INNAURATO'S Gemini begins with a deafening blast of construction, a counter-blast of Maria Callas and a volley of shrieks and screams. The protagonist, Francis Geminiani, a Harvard junior back home in Philadelphia for the summer, leans out his second-story window, plants a speaker on the sill in a grand gesture of defiance, and blares an opera record to combat the 7 a.m. assault. This awakens his obese next-door neighbor, Bunny Weinberger, who throws open her second-story window and screeches at him to "turn off that shitty music." Besides, she yells, one of those workers is her uncle. (Everyone, you see, is Family, and no one can invade like a relative.) The opening barrage establishes a histrionic level to which the play often returns. These characters do not suffer in silence; they are, by nature, operatic.

Gemini depicts two days in Francis's life, using his 21st birthday and the unexpected arrival of his rich, WASP girlfriend and her brother, both from Harvard, as an occasion for Big Scenes--confrontations, explosions, parties, reminiscences and attempts at suicide. It is a comedy steeped in pain and bathos, a marvelous, overpowering--yet enormously funny--spectacle of man's capacity for self-dramatization.

The greatness of the play lies not between the lines but splattered across the stage like an overturned plate of spaghetti. While Innaurato's characters are essentially naturalistic, their flamboyant mode of self-expression renders them larger-than-life, small people who blow themselves up to brontosaurean dimensions.

Francis may or may not be homosexual, an issue which he never really resolves, but which provides an excellent vehicle for exploring his relationships to his father, friends and neighbors. All over the stage are huge physical manifestations of Francis's worst fears about himself, from his father's boorishness and classlessness to Bunny's flamboyant lust for his girlfriend's brother (on whom Francis also has a crush); from the obese, wheezing weirdness of Bunny's son, Herschel, to the uptight pettiness of the neighbor Lucille.

The characters reveal themselves through theatrical gestures: Bunny, swilling a bottle of Scotch ("horse piss") on her balcony and threatening to jump; Lucille presiding over a spaghetti dinner like Klaus Kinski in Nosferatu, stabbing stray meatballs on others' plates with birdlike speed; Francis excoriating his family and friends and demolishing his birthday cake; his father describing the day his wife left home, whereupon he took a pickaxe, smashed the sidewalk, and planted a fig tree that has grown into a majestic symbol of le Beau Geste.

Gemini is deeply personal, and the play's primary impact is on the emotions. Even surrounded by excessive babbling and posturing, the moments of genuine, unvarnished feeling have a lucidity that carries them effortlessly out of the mess. (I knew Herschel's gentle rhapsody on his life's passion, trolley cars, was important because it made me cry.) All those piled-up absurdities emit enough shocks of recognition to power a theaterful of electric chairs.

THE ACTORS INHABIT Innaurato's universe with relish and sensitivity, turning in uniformly splendid, often unforgettable performances. Jeff Gerrard gives a delightfully detailed performance as Francis, from his nasal prissiness and grandmotherly peevishness to his awkward, chunky waddle. As his father, John Lagioia affects the stance of a fifth-grade toughie, his bluster sometimes dissolving into a haggard awareness. As Bunny, Laurel Cronin's intelligence, feeling--those drunken arias!--comic timing, and, finally, beauty are every bit as elephantine as her frame. There is fine support from Kaye Kingston's ghoulishly tacky Lucille and Ann Kerry's fetching Judith, but the find of the evening is John Cassisi's heart-wrenching Herschel--his breath rushing to catch up with his voice, his voice fighting to keep up with his thoughts before people stop listening and go away, with the underlying sadness of a kid who knows he's fat and weird and feels compelled to be the first to point it out.

Peter Mark Schifter has directed with the breathless tenderness of a Herschel Weinberger, though with considerably more precision. He keeps the trolley cars on their respective tracks, accelerating entrances and exits so that a group of seven is, suddenly, two, and the sanctity of an emotional confrontation is inevitably, often repeatedly, violated by a hovering group of invaders. Schifter's meticulously timed staging allows us few moments to catch our breath, and leaves us dizzy and dazzled by the evening's end.

The finale, where the tone shifts abruptly from despondency to joy, is telling. This is, and must be, a comedy. Innaurato brings us as far as he dares, never allowing the desperate actions to have physical consequences. The play does not resolve its problems because many of the problems are unresolvable, and Innaurato is too honest to fake it without telling us so. The fantastic ending, which allows the protagonist to fly out of the abyss he dug himself, sends us out happy, and does not invalidate the preceding darker moments. They remain suspended--like Francis and Bunny on their respective ledges--inviting our return when the play--and the fun--has ended.

Despite the dreariness of these people's lives, they have made it through another day without too much damage; unable to elevate themselves, they keep their balance, and even do their bit to keep someone else from toppling--if no one can invade like a relative, no one can be there as fast with the ambulance. The spirit of Gemini is very precious, and its hero is the Drama: it makes these trivial people very grand, renders the corniest platitudes heroic and profound, and gives us insight into those big and little dramas we enact every day, performing to keep the cold out.