There is an immense amount of ambition on stage at 13th Street Repertory Theatre right now, where Judson Blake’s Perversion, directed by the author, recently began performances. The play, an absurdist anti-war jeremiad, embodies that plucky, can-do spirit that has animated downtown theater since the Provincetown Players invaded MacDougal Street 100 years ago. That a group of independent artists have gathered in a 65-seater in the basement of a mid-19th-century Village brownstone to tell an original political story in this Wicked theatrical world is cause for celebration. That the resulting work is so wrong-headed on nearly every level is merely a sobering reminder that ambition without craft is simply hubris.
The story begins promisingly enough, with Phyllis (Jennifer Susi) attempting to coax her reticent lover Martin (Daniel Cuff) into indulging some unnamed “perversion” they share. Martin’s reluctance stems largely from the impending arrival of inspectors who will “improve things.” What exactly they are meant to inspect, and how things will improve, no one seems to know. Martin’s brother, Terrence (Andy Nordin), also lives there, and Phyllis’ sister Cindy (Dana Jesberger) is visiting with her son, Vardaman (Irina Kaplan).
The inspectors, named Quibble (Harry Bainbridge) and Scar (Tony Del Bono), eventually arrive, connected by a long tube and dragging around a little wagon containing a cross, a rifle, and an American flag bedecked with money. In case those metaphors aren’t clear enough, the inspectors’ reporter friend (Robert Lewis) shows up and shoves a gigantic cardboard camera in everyone’s face. His name? Major Importance. Before the end of the evening, someone in the cast will be dead, as will a whole lot of people in a foreign country, thanks to the invaders’ manipulation of little Vardaman’s destructive imagination.
The company, god bless ’em, commit 100% to this outlandish plot, which is far less coherent than it may sound. The Theater of the Absurd tradition in which Perversion wants to position itself, which was really no tradition at all but a collection of works by disparate mid-20th-century writers with superficial similarities, found weighty humor and pathos in the futility of post-Hiroshima life. The plays were as much a reaction against stifling realistic drama as they were social documents; think Beckett or Pinter. Without a clear dramatic tradition or political foil to rail against, however, Perversion is all bluster. Characters warble and argue and pontificate endlessly about—well, one is never quite sure... Take, for example, this exchange from Act 4:
Terrence: You bombed a city. Do you know what you did?
Scar: Of course we know. A city got ancillaried in an ordnance typified event. If you want to be particular about it.
Terrence: You. You bombed families sleeping in their beds.
Scar: I don’t know why you need those terms. A child, a simple child, acted as children will, as children always have. And anyway, some good was probably done and the rest is, as they say, collateral, if you will. If you want to be a purist, a city was in the place where some bombs encountered solid ground. Gravity being what it is and bombs being what they are, the bombs descended somewhere, I think. I believe that’s right. I wasn’t there.
This broad exchange is typical of the hectoring, condescending, and unfunny tone throughout. At once leaden and glib, the dialogue constantly ties itself up in Gordian knots of faux profundity, leaving the actors, bless ’em, with little to do but go really, really, big. The result is a show that strains to be Waiting for Godot but ends up Waiting for Guffman.
We never find out what Martin and Phyllis’ perversion is. Pity. A jolt of actual perversion might have mitigated Blake’s joyless satire. The play is ostensibly taken from his unpublished novel, and more power to him. We need writers facing the world head-on. There is a potent conception of the toll of modern living buried under the crust of tics and tricks in the story’s current embodiment; let us hope he can locate it and give it the cogent telling it deserves in Perversion’s next version.
Perversion runs through April 30 at 13th Street Repertory Theatre (50 West 13th St., between Fifth and Sixth avenues). Evening performances are at 8 p.m. Thursday–Saturday and 6 p.m. Sunday; matinees are at 4 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $24. To purchase them, visit 13thstreetrep.org.