Tuna Wars

If you're in the audience at Laughing Wild, chances are, at some point you will do just that. It would be nearly impossible, when confronted with the jumble of intensely witty insights and one-liners—and playwright Christopher Durang's overall glorious absurdity—not to find something to laugh at in this 1987 play, as well as something to think about. The Infant of Prague, Sally Jessy Raphael, and an insanely large and metaphorical can of tuna all make appearances in Green Sea Theater's production at Under St. Marks. The considerable problem this production faces is trying to execute the script's ambitiousness. It's not just that the play straddles the line between political commentary and social satire, but that the structure itself—particularly the first two acts—is tough to carry out. Those acts are made up of two long monologues—one by the Woman and one by the Man—called "Laughing Wild" and "Seeking Wild," respectively. They're long enough to be essentially one-man shows, and keeping an audience's attention for such a long time is a complicated responsibility, even for a very strong actor. A performer has to be completely captivating to pull it off.

In the midst of her stream-of-consciousness speech, the Woman explains to the audience how she hit a man over the head after she was unable to ask him to stop blocking a can of tuna at the supermarket. In classic "me generation" form, she then promptly left for the art museum because she needed to be surrounded by culture instead of tuna. Maddalena V. Maresca is clearly a talented actress, but her deft changeability—from one line to another, she's practically a chameleon at times—and earnest attempts to map the ups and downs of a somewhat crazy person's speech aren't enough to make her monologue entirely entertaining.

Oddly enough, although her performance is perhaps more vigorous than Jimmy Smith's as the Man (Smith also directed the play), his more realistic, nervous quirkiness is ultimately more compelling. (It helps that he has some of the funnier lines.) The Man tries to share positive aphorisms from a recent, and ultimately unsuccessful, personality improvement program. Yet he seems increasingly frustrated with his inability to understand the social climate he's living in (and therefore relate to others), particularly the public and political statements about AIDS and homosexuality.

His best lines are zingers that come from his personal musings: "God is silent on the Holocaust, but he involves himself in the Tony Awards? It doesn't seem very likely." His frustration with trying to understand those around him leads him to reveal how he was hit over the head by a woman (the Woman) in the supermarket, an act he says he can't understand. Although many of the ideas presented in the two acts are interesting and momentarily funny, the presentation ends up being a little boring.

In the third act, "Dreaming Wild," the two characters are physically brought together in overlapping dreams, and the act attempts to exorcise their inability to understand each other and communicate. The play does pick up quite a bit at this point. But neither the physical energy, including a supermarket cart fight, nor the great deal of attention given to the lighting and costumes is enough to reverse the first two acts' lackluster outcomes. (One of the Woman's costumes has a wacky 80's motif—an oversized yellow-and-black print top. The Man, when dressed as the Infant of Prague—a Czechoslovakian statue of Jesus—is decked out in a white gown.)

At first, the ambiguity of an unadorned black-box stage makes sense, and the show was probably under-designed intentionally. After all, the setting is undefined and the characters are themselves lost, but giving them a tangible place might have helped to guide the audience's focus.

Yet even without a defined sense of physical place, the time is undeniably the 1980's. The press release declares that the play is a "visceral response to period ideas from Ronald Reagan to Diana Ross." When the Man tries to comprehend the idea that people think God would decide that those who get AIDS will be homosexuals, hemophiliacs, and heroin addicts, we see it as a completely inadequate summation, given the widespread, international decimation the disease has caused.

As for the "culture wars" themselves—of which the Man is in the crossfire—I realized, while watching this play, that I wasn't sure who had won. Although the Man refers to a 1986 Supreme Court decision on homosexuality that was overturned in 2003, the controversy over gay marriage certainly hasn't been settled.

Because the play's time period is still recent, this production offers an unusual opportunity, not so much to see the parallels with today's politics but to understand how we're still living with the political legacy of the 80's.

Print Friendly and PDF