Mac Wellman is a grand master of absurdity, and the Flea Theater is currently presenting a festival of five plays in rotating repertory. Two of them, Bad Penny and Serenity Forever, are classic examples of Wellman’s work, which often weaves together an exploration of the everyday with mythology, the metaphysical, and American consciousness.
In Bad Penny, directed by Kristan Seemel, actors are interspersed with audience. A woman, known only as Woman #1 (the adorable Emma Orme), finds a penny and puts it in her pocket. The play is performed in the back space of the Flea Theater, where both the audience and the actors sit on AstroTurf, or at small tables, lawn chairs, or a picnic table. The setting feels like a park where strangers come for some respite. Suddenly Woman #1 addresses Man #1 (Joseph Huffman, who has the face of a 1950s movie star) carrying a tire and dressed like a farmboy. He claims he’s from Big Ugly, Mont. He looks like he got lost on his way home.
Woman #1 and the others, who chime in from the audience—Woman #2 (Bailie DeLacy), Man #2 (Alex J. Moreno), Man #3 (Lambert Tamin), and the Chorus (Katelyn Sabet, Dana Placentra and Caroline Banks)—believe that the bad penny will summon the Boatman of Bow Bridge, a character much like Charon in Greek mythology, whose duty was to ferry people over the River Styx to the underworld, but they also have their doubts. At times, their commentary is directly related to Woman #1, and at other times it’s tangential.
Woman #1: I know I shouldn’t’ve picked up that goddam bad penny I found on the path, over there, near the big fountain. I knew it would turn out this way: bad. BAD. Bad bad.
Man #3: Then what the hell's a good penny? I mean, how can you tell the difference? A penny’s a penny. I don’t get it.
Woman #1: A good penny is one you find heads up. A bad penny is tails up. The one you pick up and pocket, the other you don’t. It’s a rule. I violated the rule by picking up the bad penny.
Man #1 especially disbelieves, and that summons the Boatman (Ryan Wesley Stinnett), who leads him out. Lesson learned.
Sincerity Forever, directed by Diana Vovsi, is set in a fictional Southern town called Hillsbottom, where teens participate in Ku Klux Klan activities. When the play opens, Molly (Charly Dannis) and Judy (Malena Pennycook) sit in the loading dock area of a supermarket where they work, putting on makeup and getting ready for whatever the next thing is. So far, the setting seems typical. But then, in true Wellman fashion, the conversation takes a metaphysical turn. They discuss “God’s plan,” suggesting that we are all ignorant of it, but also just plain ignorant. Judy suggests that we don’t know this plan so that we can be happy. But Molly begins to wonders why so many horrible things happen to people, and she names things like car crashes and the plutonium seepage that taints the supply of water for West Hillsbottom. Judy suggests that there is no evidence to this claim and that the powers that be would let us know if there were a problem.
Complicating this profound yet seemingly innocent inquiry is that most of the teens are members of the KKK who spend much of their time in Klan garb as they flirt, reminisce, and conduct conversations while also navigating the neighborhood. Taking a sip from a Big Gulp or stealing a kiss presents a problem. Do you lift the hood up, or sneak the item under it?
Central to the play is the idea that if something is done with sincerity, it makes everything all right. This conviction allows the teens to justify their support of racist doctrines as members of the Klan. The Furballs, mythological creatures that exist in the collective folklore of Hillsbottom, but are more like punk-rock party kids present a different idea. Furball #2 (Neysa Lozano) rants about all the horrible things that the kids do in this town: the small-mindedness and the contrived morality inspired by fire-and-brimstone ideology. Furball #1 (Zac Porter) cuts her off and asks, Who is she to judge? In this play, everyone’s moral compass is set to justify their own means. Does anyone get it right?
Some characters believe that “doomsday” is coming, and that includes a visit from Jesus H. Christ (played by Amber Jaunai), who, upon visiting Hillsbottom, declares disappointment with the human race. No one escapes her criticism and disgust. The play ultimately paints a bleak picture for social justice, but maybe we need to raise the bar on consciousness.
The Mac Wellman festival runs through Nov. 1 at The Flea Theater (20 Thomas St.). Sincerity Forever and Bad Penny play in repertory, with varying dates and times. Tickets range between $17–$37, and festival passes are available. For tickets and more information, call (212) 226-0051 or visit theflea.org.