MASTER OF ECSTASY by Jon Lipsky. Directed by Steve Wangh. Set by Eric Levenson. Costumes by Judy Holmes. Lighting by David Perrigo. With Tim McDonough, Ilona Wheeler, Vincent Murphy and Suzanne Baxtresser. At Reality Theater, Thursdays through Saturdays, through April 14, 1978.

Master of Ecstasy sounds like a play about someone who runs a massage parlor. It’s not – unless you consider what Werner Erhard does the psychological equivalent of an X-rated body-rub. Reality Theater’s resident playwright, Jon Lipsky, has taken a long look at the quasi-spiritual self-actualization movements that have sprung up to service the soul-searchers of the ‘70s, and he has fashioned from his observations a funny, perceptive and, ultimately, quite serious play. This is no glib, post-Guyana condemnation of cults; Lipsky assumes no moral stance. What fascinates him is the combined foolishness and courage it takes to abandon everyday life and search for Truth.

The Razor’s Edge is a community located on an imaginary island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Presiding are the charismatic Master of Ecstasy (Tim McDonough), a turbaned guru who shares his insights with truth-seeking pilgrims, and his all-purpose helper, the mute Ferry Woman (Ilona Wheeler). Among the guests is Cecile (Suzanne Baxtresser), an archtypical “flipped-out chick” who escaped from some shady business transaction in Calcutta and showed up at the Razor’s Edge clutching the Master’s Village Voice ad. The arrival of her enraged boyfriend/business partner, McCann (Vincent Murphy), gives Lipsky a chance to spell out, for our benefit as well as McCann’s, the precepts of the Master’s philosophy – a wonderfully plausible mixture of common sense and psychobabble.

“Imagine that death is just a snapshot away,” begins the Master’s lecture; the ominous Ferry Woman stands nearby with a Polaroid, as if to make good on the threat. “What in your life has been incredible? First thought!” McCann thinks it over, nudges Cecile. “Those are your pillars of ecstasy,” says the Master. “Now – flash! – what do you regret? First thought! What’s missing? Those are the missing pillars of ecstasy, the gaps If you’re not trying to fill the gaps, then what are you doing with your life? What’s the point?” The pitch smacks of est, of “I’m OK, You’re OK,” of numerous pop-psych wondercures. But the promise of Ecstasy – of life without trivial concerns, without postponement of gratification – is genuinely enticing.

The guru’s formula for “filling the gaps” involves three stages: Anticipation, Submersion and Transformation. In the first phase, one clarifies goals and obstacles; the second demands that one summon the strength to break through self-imposed limits and make a change for the better; and the final step is recognizing the change. The intricacy of detail in Lipsky’s made-up philosophy is fascinating; the playwright borrows snatches of existing moments to build an entirely separate one. It has its own mystical metaphors, metaphysical exercises (“Imagine what it’d be like if you go what you wanted”), method of transference (“What do you need?” the Master asks McCann. “Focus your need on me”), and oft-repeated axioms (“If you don’t like it, transform it”). In fact, the movement is so credibly constructed one almost expects to find recruiters in the lobby.

Lipsky doesn’t take his characters’ quests too seriously, though. Indeed, his characters don’t take themselves too seriously. “McCann tried to kill me!” a hysterical Cecile complains to the Master, who replies, “How did that feel?” “Oh, I get it,” she says later, sarcastically, after receiving one of the Master’s helpful hints. “It’s good for me – it just feels bad.” The tone of the play – the proportion of absurdity to earnestness is perfectly summed up in the program’s twin epigraphs. The first is a quote from the Katha Upanishads: “Search out the best teachers, and through them find the Truth. But beware! ‘The path is narrow,’ the masters warn, ‘sharp as a razor’s edge, most difficult to tread.’” The second is from, of all things, Walt Disney’s Dumbo: “I seen a peanut stand/I seen a rubber band/I seen a needle wink its eye,/But I been done seen ‘bout everything,/When I seen an elephant fly….”


Master of Ecstasy is more than a spoof on est, though, and the characters more than placards. What makes the play exciting is that it continues to unfold, to get richer and deeper as it goes along, rather than narrowing toward a resolution. Once we’ve gotten to know the characters, an adventure element is introduced. While McCann does become intrigued by the Master’s pitch, his original intention was to find Cecile and the bundle of money with which she fled India, and cart both of them away. When he finds out that Cecile has turned the money over to the Master, who has spent it all running Razor’s Edge, McCann concocts a blackmail scheme. It seems the Master has never applied for tax-exempt status, though he has accepted substantial contributions without reporting them as income. So McCann, who’s a greasy bastard anyway, threatens to turn the guru in to the Canadian equivalent of the IRS unless he goes along with a sleazy get-rich- quick scheme: a Woodstock-like convocation of “Me Decade” movements on Razor’s Edge, which McCann markets as crassly as he might hamburgers. 

Meanwhile, the characters ripen. Subtle power shifts take place; sexual tensions arise. Dreams and visions are related, revelations made. The scene begins to crumble, however, when a shocked Cecile and McCann discover the Master plunging his head into a tub of water while the scowling Ferry woman looks on; gasping and miserable, the Master reveals that the real power is the Ferry Woman. Finally, Cecile freaks out and takes off, in the dead of winter, across the ice toward the mainland and the men follow. All are caught in a blinding snowstorm, from which they are rescued by the Ferry Woman. The play then makes a surreal shift as she serves tea and the four characters take turns cheerfully recounting all the things that will happen to them after leaving Razor’s Edge, most of which “don’t work out.” The search for truth, the struggle to change, the ultimate failure – these, Lipsky’s smiling characters suggest, are just some things that happen to us on the way toward death. 

Master of Ecstasy reminds me of Sam Shepard’s plays in its broad comic slant, its American mythos, its use of rock music (the Eagles’ “Life in the Fast Lane” is the theme song here), and its concentration on a small band of weird characters. Lipsky, like Shepard, knows how to re-use a familiar story or situation for his own purposes, and both playwrights favor an odd hybrid of stylized and naturalistic writing. But I think Master of Ecstasy is more ambitious and less opaque than most Shepard plays.

Lipsky’s ambition has its drawbacks, of course. There are points where useful or essential information goes by too quickly or isn’t given at all. It’s not clear how many other people are on Razor’s Edge at any given time or what the experience is like for them. And Cecile and McCann’s transatlantic business scam is never sufficiently explained; I thought Cecile’s remark about sneaking rare birds across the border in hair curlers was an musing euphemism for dope-smuggling, but the subject came up confusingly later. And a couple of scenes, notably an awkwardly written and staged flashback to India, fail to make sense on a simple narrative level. On the whole, though, director Steve Wangh gives Lipsky’s difficult script a suitable, anything-goes treatment and, in the final sequence, the writing and staging merge to elevate the play to the realm of poetry.

In the program, Lipsky acknowledges Wangh and the actors as collaborators, and there’s no need to wonder why. Each is superb, bringing to the role something of his or her own invention. Suzanne Baxtresser projects the kind of intelligence that manifests itself more in vitality than braininess, which is perfect for the suggestible, speed-gobbling Cecile. Vincent Murphy’s quizzical grin and punky sexiness add to the charm of would-be hood McCann. Ilona Wheeler – who also provides haunting musical interludes – allows the enigmatic Ferry Woman to be whatever you think she is: witch, idiot or innocent bystander. And Tim McDonough’s performance is fascinating not only because it reveals a human, almost nebbishy quality behind the cult-leader’s charisma, but because it is so uncharacteristic of this actor. McDonough is usually cast as the strong, silent, lantern-jawed type for which his towering frame and booming voice naturally recommend him. Here, McDonough plays against type, becoming life-sized, seeming at times a foot shorter than we know he is. It’s not a showy performance, but it is an impressive one.

As perfectly matched, however, as Reality and Master of Ecstasy seem, they are not inseparable – and the play is good enough to go on. Furthermore, it’s exciting to discover a play at the beginning of what deserves to be a long life. Boston theatergoers tend to think that good new plays are things that fleet through Boston on their way to Broadway. But our own Jon Lipsky, whose other works include Reality’s 1978 hit, Beginner’s Luck, won’t let us forget that worthwhile plays are sometimes born and bred right here.

Boston Phoenix, March 1978