Dangling Conversations

The artwork for the postcard advertising Legitimate Theater Company's evening of one-act plays contains an illustration of an elephant and a sofa. Is it the "elephant in the living room," the problem on everyone's mind that no one talks about? Certainly in both plays, Ian Schoen's Jesus Hector Christ and Caryl Churchill's Heart's Desire, the characters dance around issues and manage to avoid saying anything meaningful about what's causing their problems. The true dialogue exists in their silences and in the words deliberately not chosen. In the first of the two plays, Heart's Desire, Brian (Cash Tilton) and Alice (Mimi Jefferson) wait for Susy, their adult daughter, to return home from a trip abroad. Maisie (Janice Bishop), Susy's aunt, and Lewis (Rich Lovejoy), Susy's brother, join them in waiting. With Maisie's help, Alice prepares a special homecoming lunch while Brian frets and Lewis wanders in and out drunkenly. The entire conversation runs about five minutes. But it takes the family nearly 35 minutes to actually complete the conversation because it is constantly being interrupted.

The action begins with the two women setting the table and Brian appearing in a bright red sweater. Alice takes one look at him and rings a small bell that sits at the table's center. He exits, the scene begins again, and Brian enters in a different outfit. This is also not acceptable: Alice rings the bell and everyone starts over. Finally, after donning a vest that is deemed suitable by his wife, the trio's conversation is allowed to resume. Yet not more than a few moments later, the little bell is rung again; we've advanced the story by only several lines before we return again to the beginning.

The "do over" pattern continues throughout the story, with interruptions varying from a (deliberately) stumbled line to angry spats between family members to the arrival of random, and deadly, intruders. Even after Susy returns home, the play resets itself: sometimes it's Susy at the door, sometimes it's her Australian lover, and sometimes it's a giant chicken.

Churchill's script indicates only that dialogue starts and stops; the ringing appears to be a choice made for this production by director Max Seide. The bell does help to quickly establish the pattern and gives the audience an anchor in an otherwise opaque piece of theater. We quickly determine that someone rings the bell whenever the outcome of the situation is not to his or her liking. But will anything ever be to anyone's liking? Because conversations are constantly being altered and undone, we start to see the futility of the characters' communication. By the end of the play, much of the characters' true personalities have been revealed, but we never definitively know what's going to happen in their lives.

In the second play, Jesus Hector Christ, the opposite is true: we see a situation through to its completion, but we never know what the characters are really feeling. This is mostly because the characters themselves are so conflicted. Best friends Tim (Christopher Norwood) and Clyde (Eric Brown) are young men plugging away in meaningless jobs until Clyde hits a speed bump. His girlfriend Natalie (Brenda Cooney) is pregnant, but the couple is unprepared to have a baby. While Clyde and Natalie argue about whether to have an abortion, Tim does the best he can to support his friend. In the end, the pregnancy is terminated, the relationship between Clyde and Natalie is over, and neither man knows what he's supposed to do with his life.

Written and directed by Ian Schoen, the Legitimate Theater Company's co-artistic director, Jesus Hector Christ is a good example of the naturalistic style often seen in contemporary drama. The play presented a slice of real life, and everything onstage, including props and people, was made to appear as authentic as possible. The characters ran the emotional gamut from sardonic amusement to violent frustration. Schoen's dialogue was especially compelling, capturing quite accurately how awkward, stilted, and occasionally haphazard conversations can be when the subject matter is so difficult.

Both productions had strong casts who made the most of the juicy parts they'd been given, and both shows presented high-quality costumes and scenery. Ultimately, enjoyment of the show comes down to personal preferences. I especially liked the Churchill piece with all its ambiguity, while my companion scratched her head questioningly. She, on the other hand, very much enjoyed the Schoen piece, which I thought was well done but a tad too much like real life for my escapist tendencies. But in coming away from the experience with something to think about, both of us considered the evening a success.

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