Off, Off-Off and New Jersey, Too- The Theater Section-
We Will Prevail by Larry Bao (9-17 March @ The Tank)
By Tyler Plosia
In an interview with nytheatre.com, Larry Bao – playwright (and director) of We Will Prevail – had this to say: “the only ‘kind’ of theatre I’m not a fan of is the idea of the ‘fourth wall.’ But at the same time I’m not a huge fan of ‘audience participation.’ I enjoy a good balance in the middle.” Bao is concerned not just with communicating to an audience, but also communicating with an audience. The merits of We Will Prevail – a show comprised of two separate one-acts (entitled The Intruder and Ladies Night, in that order) – can be judged against such a conversational aspiration.
In The Intruder, Robert and Sam believe they are living – alone – in the same home and possessing the same possessions. There is more than a trace of The Twilight Zone in this basic premise, and though it provides the dramatic push of the piece, the language and demeanor of the characters are not so dependent on it. For much of their pondering and arguing (mostly arguing), the tone could be that of two hurried coffee shop patrons fighting over a place in line. Robert (played by Paul Notice, whose temperate reserve is enhanced by the sometime exaggeration of Brent Rose, his Intruder costar) says, in one of many attempts at tension alleviation, “if we are to be reasonable, we have to be personable.” The two never quite get there. In an early example of what would become a recurring dilemma in We Will Prevail, spoken language fails to communicate, and Robert and Sam end up leaving the apartment separately through different doors.
The three female leads of Ladies Night are obsessed with men (or at least two of them are. One is assigned mostly with dancing and agreeing vacuously, but Alyson Calder manages to do these things with such vulnerable earnestness that she got more opening night laughs than anyone else in the second of the two acts). These women avoid no vague or overused complaints in their male bashing – not the disparity in wages, and definitely not dance floor hard-ons (the hard-ons being the main disrupters of a successful ladies night). But when a man arrives onstage, the most loquacious of the women – billed simply as “A” – cannot bring herself to say anything genuine, or at least literal, to his face. A and her male neighbor exchange frustrated, disingenuous banter, and it isn’t until he slams the door in her face that she’s at a comfortable enough distance to utter a heartfelt “fuck you!” The scene culminates in a fairly predictable turn of events, but the twist in character relations is not enough to affect the message: you can feel the significance of a sentence without attaching its literal meaning.
Both of the acts reminded me of Harold Pinter in their insularity. Pinter often equated the home with the womb: the warmth, comfort and familiarity of being inside, the fear and anxiety attached to leaving. There’s something protected about the domestic language of the women in Ladies Night; they surely would not have felt as at ease shouting about the evils of men in a public environment. The womb metaphor is even more applicable in The Intruder, where two characters making claims on a single home results in an unbroken threat of violence.
Bao clearly had a specific conceptual framework in mind when he began penning these two one-acts, but then there’s this question: as is the case with many of the lines of Will We Prevail’s characters, did the words get in the way of the ideas? The writing of We Will Prevail seems to suffer most when repetitive chatter clouds content. Questions of identity and supernatural possibilities linger in the minds Robert and Sam, but there’s the distraction of their aimless, incessant arguing which is so peppered with profanity it can be difficult to swallow. The three women in Ladies Night discuss gender inequality directly, but they swim so much on the surface of the issue that not even outwardly ignorant misogynists would mistake their long-windedness for depth. But there was a point where I thought: maybe this is the point. Maybe Bao is concentrated, as so many playwrights before him have been, on the disconnect between conversation and communication. Ionesco and Beckett were a few of the originals, Mamet and maybe LaBute are some of the more recent (and more subtle) wielders of the baton. In We Will Prevail, there is yelling, screeching, and the shouting of “cheers!” (gan-bay, in Chinese) – but there is not much understanding. The slippery, contentious slope of writing a play about how language fails, however, is that while the writing itself may suffer from occasional redundancies and moments of general sloppiness, who’s to say it’s not all part of the plan?