Enter this production with the mindset that it is not a play, but an experience. The weighty drama, HIM is poet/playwright/painter E.E Cummings’ method of showing his estranged daughter, Nancy, the world that prevented him from being her father. That world is the circus. Presented by The Longest Lunch, and equipped with a capable ensemble of actors with a great well of energy to draw from, HIM takes the stage with some built-in obstacles. The biggest obstacle is: Cummings purposely wrote an incomprehensible play because he believed experiencing art is more important than understanding it.
There are two sides to HIM’s plot. One half is a semi-autobiographical account of the way Cummings’ marriage to his first wife, Elaine, dissolved, taking his only child with her. The other half is a circus that the main character of HIM, also named, HIM (Dan Cozzens) has written and proceeds to show to his wife, ME (Elan O’Conner). ME doesn’t understand it. HIM tells her she is not supposed to. “Just watch,” he urges.
The audience would best heed this same advice. Though HIM does have a very human story at its center, the bulk is a vaudeville circus where each skit is just as bizarrely baffling as the one before it. “What was that about?” ME dares to ask after one particularly puzzling piece. “Chaos,” HIM tells her as if it should have been obvious.
Cummings’ dialogue is rich with poetry that Cozzens recites with perfect fluidity. The imagery is vivid and a few select sentences stand out for their simple profoundness (“I held my husband up to the light today and I could see right through him.”) Cummings' level of intense analytical thought is a challenge to sustain for the play’s long running time. This performance ran at three and a half hours with one intermission.
Fortunately, The Longest Lunch makes the most of that one intermission. Hot dogs, popcorn and free cups of soda and water were served, filling the lobby with the familiar sights and smells of a circus.
Despite its burdens as a heavy and lengthy play, Him offers something not often found in modern day theater: a believable recreation of the vaudeville era.
Rather than paint the theater with cheery, bright colors, set designer Kaitlyn Mulligan selected worn and faded hues. The effect is a set that looks used and lived in. One can imagine the stage’s wrinkled red curtain and creaky tired props being dragged across a dusty countryside from one town to the next. The theater even smells like the carnival, largely due to the thick aroma of herbal cigarette smoke that permeates the room.
The female ensemble performers look authentically Burlesque in their top hats, slip dresses, fishnets and garters, tapping in a line like a tawdry group of Rockettes. But the most eerie element is Michael Hochman’s lighting design: dark green and deep purple bathe the performers, giving them a creepy, otherworldly feel.
Whether or not this display ever impressed Cummings’ daughter, Nancy, is not mentioned. There is a scene where Cummings describes the wonder of seeing a child in a crib while the ghost of a young girl paces around the outskirts of the room, appearing to be listening with some sympathy.
But the moment is burst by ME. Does HIM want to be a father or not? That is the reality of the situation and reality, HIM says, kills the bohemian soul. Hopefully, Nancy does understand her poet/painter/playwright father on some level. The Longest Lunch certainly seems to share his mindset. Their production has captured the aspects that Cummings loved most about the circus by recreating the smoky fantasy of vaudeville that clearly touched his soul.