ABSURDISM AND REALITY CLASH IN "MOUNT VERNON"

4153081

As if we needed more evidence, the recent shootings in Orlando substantiate how America’s relationship with gun ownership, gun usage, and the Constitutional right to bear arms remains a contentious issue that sorely needs to be publicly dialogued—and what better place than the theater? Straight out of the school of Albee, Rena Brannan has written a two-character puzzle-box of a play which means to highlight these themes, but even with some knockout performances, the show gets lost under the weight of its own density.

In a Reagan National Airport boarding gate area (the realistic seats are by designer Charlotte Malmlof), the successful young friendless video-game designer of “Hungry Cherries”, Porter James (Brandon Ruiter), awaits a flight delayed by a storm. Hester (Sophie Ward), a hippie-esque woman about six years his senior, enters with a knowing look and quickly invades Porter’s space as he tap-tap-taps away on his laptop. The pushy busybody has just returned barefooted from a visit to Mount Vernon, and goads Porter into a conversation. It’s superficial at first, but soon enough there’s absurdism afoot: the less fortunate Hester is desperate for a bathroom to wash the “presidential dirt” off her face, but doesn’t go to one; she pulls out a ukulele and tries to entertain Porter; and she mimes smoking.

What’s going on here? Their situation feels almost unbelievable, and the airport is devoid of people. She’s quirkier than he is, but they’re both educated, swapping theories about Newtonian law and reciting Eugene Field’s “The Duel” (the poem with the gingham dog and the calico cat), and soon—as in Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano—the layers are peeled back as he begins to realize they are related. What unravels is a story of a childhood tragedy involving anger, a gun, and one irreversible moment that seems to dictate a life’s trajectory forever.

In an Edward Albee play, nothing is ever quite what it seems. The same applies here. What begins as ostensible realism swiftly corkscrews into the jurisdictions of the absurd. And as with Albee’s similarly structured Zoo Story, Ms. Brannan creates an otherworldly tapestry by weaving an absurdist weft through a realist warp. When the young man puts on his headphones, an announcement comes over the loudspeakers: “Will Porter James go to the nearest ticket agent?” In the tradition of Theater of the Absurd and burlesque, the voiceover occurs repeatedly, but only when his headphones are on. The biggest laugh (actually, one of the only laughs) of the show occurred later in the 60-minute one-act when the voiceover occurred almost simultaneously with him donning headphones again. (I’m still trying to figure out why the voiceover of the airline employee (Lorelei King) is listed as “Tannoy” in the program; is that short for technological annoyance or something?)

Realism and absurdism have yet to find a mating at the Hollywood Fringe Festival. I’m not convinced that was Brannan’s aspiration, anyway. The frustration here arose trying to figure out just what her play was about. I get the story, and I get that she wishes to tell it in a scholarly, poetic way, but I couldn’t find a way into this play. The lack of humor may speak to the concretion of Brannan’s writing, but it definitely needed wit. Albee is blisteringly funny not just for his droll commentary but because we believe his characters in their unbelievable situation.

I’m not saying this was intentional on the part of the playwright, but my biggest issue with the script is that it feels more like an author showing off how erudite and clever she is rather than painting an accurate portrait of two siblings with a tragic past involving a gun. Was it an accident that both Reagan and Lincoln were shot and our two characters are in the Ronald Reagan airport on the way to Springfield? (I assume Springfield, Illinois, unless James is on his way to visit the Simpsons.) Is the plane being delayed by serious weather a figuration for the sister’s inability to move on until she has dealt with the past? Was there something more to his having a pet albino cobra? While serious analyzers might have fun trying to put all of these clues together, I found myself at a distance because I wasn’t emotionally connected with these siblings. (I’m still trying to figure out what Hester meant when she alluded to a second eruption of Mt. Saint Helens closing LAX. Huh?)

The aftereffects of familial violence by a child with a gun was far more effective in Marja-Lewis Ryan’s superb One in the Chamber, which focused on the harrowing aspects of a family trying to regain a sense of normalcy after a fratricide. In Mount Vernon, the writer’s cleverness takes center stage over the storytelling, so the dialogue feels too thick, too smart, and too humorless to flow well. I love the situation, the subject matter, and the unraveling, intellectual dialogue, but boy was it tough to get on board. It would have helped had Peter Marc Jacobson directed his truly exceptional actors to locate the reality of the situation and relate to each other with more authenticity, but the subtext went missing.

(As a side note, Jacobson is the creator/writer/producer of TV’s The Nanny with ex-wife Fran Drescher, whom he divorced after 18 years when he came out as gay. This has no bearing on my review. I divulge this because it was all in his bio in the program, along with info on money he’s made and lost, and even real estate holdings: “a sweet loft,” “a really nice place by the beach,” “a house that was so beautiful it was used for a season of Bobby Flay’s Food Channel Show.” Was this meant to be funny? Talk about absurd realism. Shameless.)

MOUNT VERNON
The Vindicate Company Ltd
June 11-20, 2016 
for tickets ($12), visit Hollywood Fringe

Running Time: 60 minutes
Hudson Guild, 6539 Santa Monica Bl in Hollywood