3 Women, Take 2

Play Yourself by Harry Kondoleon. Directed by Craig Lucas, with Marian Seldes, Elizabeth Marvel, Ann Guilbert, and Juan Carlos Hernandez, New York Theater Workshop at the Century Center for the Performing Arts, closes August 4.

"Know thyself" was the message famously engraved over the entrance of the ancient temple housing the oracle of Delphi. What a terrifying injunction! But no more terrifying, I suppose, than "Play yourself," the command that Hollywood directors shouted from the sidelines at beautiful, inexperienced starlets from Midwestern cow towns playing the kind of women who wear black cocktail dresses in the middle of the day. Jean, the central character in Harry Kondoleonís "Play Yourself," used to be one of those B-movie actresses, innocent virgins repeatedly cast as "women who got in the way of happy endings." Now long-retired from show business, half-blind, and living in suburban anonymity with her daughter-caretaker Yvonne, Jean still wakes up at night with bad dialogue running through her head. And even though her Hollywood career never amounted to more than a handful of forgettable melodramas with titles like "Mean to Me" and "Beat the Band," late-night TV reruns have earned her a small but ardent cult of fans like Selma, a middle-aged volunteer at a shelter for the hopeless founded by a non-denominational preacher named Brother Harmon, another Jean admirer. When Yvonneís gay friend Bobby -- on vacation in Europe with his lover Gregory -- forwards an ad Selma has placed looking for other cult members to share biographical tidbits about their idol, mother and daughter decide (out of boredom rather than spite) to play a trick on Selma and invite her to the house.

Itís a delicious setup for a comic meditation on illusion and reality, time and aging, and the devilish way that movies flout all the natural laws regarding these things. But no Harry Kondoleon play ever ends up where you think itís going. Thereís a streak of magic running through "Play Yourself." The characters, and the play itself, keep transforming right before our eyes. 

If the first scene is "At Home with Jean and Yvonne," the second scene becomes an identity swap-meet. It turns out that Selma has a higher purpose than simply collecting movie-star trivia. A shrinking violet herself, she detects in Jeanís movie-star persona a survivorís strength, and she wants to learn how to embody that strength in order to give people more hope. Jean is motivated to go along with this plan -- she wants Selma to introduce Yvonne to a man who will marry her and make her happy -- but her idea of shoring up Selmaís confidence is to change her name to Betty. Yvonne gets into the act, suggesting that Selma practice pretending to be Jean by pretending to be her, or least Yvonne the jaded barfly who goes through men like Kleenex, a role at which Selma is hilariously inept. (Yvonne talks a good game, but sheís not very convincing at it, either.) Everybody has a disconcerting habit of quoting lines from Jeanís movies by heart. With three different versions of Jeanís archetypal heartbroken heroine floating around, the scene becomes Kondoleonís homage to Robert Altmanís "3 Women" (itself an homage to Bergmanís "Persona"), a film the playwright adored for its dreamlike merging of female identities. (Janice Rule, who played the mysterious painter in "3 Women," took the role of Jean in the first workshop of "Play Yourself" in Seattle.) Yet the scene ends with another twist. Jean admits to Selma, "My daughter and I have lost our taste for living. Can you save us?"

Salvation of a sort arrives after intermission in the form of Brother Harmon, a handsome and ambiguous figure. Is he really a charismatic and good-hearted spiritual leader, or is he some kind of shady operator whoís learned to keep his mouth shut and his ears open and let people project onto him anything they like? Is he a real character or is he a dialectical stick figure to provide an uplifting moral counterweight to Jeanís glamorous despair? Perhaps heís a little of both. In any case, he seems to assess the situation and intuitively to decide what each of these three women needs. And he gives it to them in one fell swoop by professing his love for Yvonne, whoís been lewdly slouched on the sofa flashing her panties at him the whole time, and spiriting her away to his shelter, thereby relieving Jean of her maternal anxieties and giving Selma the chance to study Jean full-time.

As the play goes on, the scenes get longer, slower, deeper, dreamier. Without ever announcing itself as such, the fourth and final scene becomes Jeanís sacramental preparation for death, with Selma as a combination hospice nurse and ritual priestess. Yvonne and Harmon return just long enough for Jean to see the transfiguration her daughter has undergone, freed from the B-movie cynicism she imbibed with motherís milk and empowered to devote her rock-and-roll energy to some form of selfless service. Left alone with Selmaís now-perfected impersonation of her, Jean is appalled to see played back to her a lifetime of pessimism and emotional stinginess. Proving to herself and to Selma that her life had any meaning at all forces Jean to search diligently until she can recall a moment when her heart was innocent and free and available to love.

Harry Kondoleon was nothing if not a poet of love, an eternal supplicant, a doom-conscious devotee. He once wrote a poem that began, "I will kiss you as if/there was not enough fire in/hell so god made love." His plays, poems, novels, and paintings are full of intense yearning for love as ecstatic and tormented as that of St. Theresa. Visitors to this website may wonder what is particularly Greek about Kondoleonís work. I knew the playwright very well, and in my experience he viewed his Greekness the same way he viewed his gayness. He was slightly embarrassed by them on one hand and fully embraced them as his destiny on the other. I do know that his family was very connected to its Greek heritage -- the language, the food, the religion -- in their middle-class assimilated way. (Part of the Kondoleon legend is that his parents are named Sophocles and Athena, and their friends in Queens call them Cliff and Tina.) I have no way of knowing if this was conscious on Kondoleonís part, but "Play Yourself" is among other things a kind of dissertation on the different forms of love, a word for which there are famously four counterparts in Greek: agape (sometimes called Christian love, or intimacy with God), eros (desire, sexual love), philia (friendship), and storge (natural affection, as between family members). The four lost souls in "Play Yourself" take turns trying each of these on for size, and some fit better than others.

In his prolific if savagely foreshortened career (he died of complications from AIDS in 1994 at age 39), Kondoleon produced 17 long and short plays, including "Christmas on Mars," "The Vampires," "Slacks and Tops," "Self Torture and Strenuous Exercise," and "Zero Positive." His plays were always best-known for their shiny comic surface. With their outrageous characters, their rich and spiky language, their wicked humor, and the periodic eruption of fantastic fairy-tale events, his plays bear a family resemblance to those of contemporary farceurs such as John Guare, Christopher Durang, and Joe Orton. At the same time, thereís a strong undercurrent of spiritual searching throughout Kondoleonís work that was never sufficiently recognized or understood in his lifetime. 

At times his charactersí wistful spiritual yearnings were not always adroitly integrated into the action of the plays, which usually start off in familiar sitcom territory. Especially in contrast to the entertaining vulgarity KondoleonĎs creations frequently exhibit, the message of "Love everybody" at the end of plays such as "The Houseguests" and "Love Diatribe" can seem tacked-on and a little preachy. Sermons do have a way of spoiling the party. But however awkward these sentiments got crowbarred in, the spiritual quest was at the center of Kondoleonís work for those with eyes to see it. In that particular sense, to my mind the playwright he most resembles is Tennessee Williams, whose work was similarly misunderstood. We think of Williamsí plays as inhabited by eccentrics, lowlifes, and soiled aristocrats parading their character flaws for our distanced amusement. But when they hit bottom, they conceive a pure, raw craving for redemption, grace, and spiritual certainty that we donít usually associate with the playwright who once had a character say, "Youíll find sympathy in the dictionary between shit and syphilis, sister."

The playwright Craig Lucas, who staged New York Theater Workshopís excellent production of "Play Yourself," has found his own ingenious way to convey the metaphysical aspect of Harry Kondoleonís work. As he did with his Obie Award-winning production of Kondoleonís "Saved or Destroyed" for Rattlestick Theatre in the fall of 2000, Lucas emphasizes the extreme theatricality of "Play Yourself." The first thing we see at the beginning of the show is a spotlit technician perched over the set dropping confetti in front of an electric fan to produce the illusion of snow falling outside Jeanís living room, as if to say: Remember, youíre in the theater, a ritual space, between two worlds. Set designer John McDermott frames the living room that the script calls for with a kitchen and a dressing room that function paradoxically as both backstage and onstage, underscoring the concept of the theater itself as a way station between the visible world and the invisible. "Saved or Destroyed" had a similar onstage/offstage set (designed by McDermott) and featured the posthumous playwright himself wearing paper wings and a tinsel halo reading stage directions, a role played by one of New Yorkís finest and most extravagantly theatrical performers, David Greenspan. "Play Yourself" boasts possibly the only actor in New York more theatrical than Greenspan, and that is the great Marian Seldes.

With numerous memorable performances under her belt (most recently as The Woman in Edward Albeeís "The Play About the Baby" last season at the same theater), Seldes nevertheless hits a new peak with "Play Yourself." Her Jean is a former starlet who never retired her slinkiness or her husky voice, a mother who masks her parental fretfulness with school-chumminess, an increasingly vulnerable invalid whose mask of bravery is slipping, a naked soul out of Beckett who wonders if she even exists, and an outrageous prankster all at once. (Watch her kiss Selmaís hand in mock-gratitude -- and then lick it like a lascivious lizard.) Itís a dazzling and poignant performance. 

But Seldes isnít alone up there on the stage. Sheís more than well-met by Elizabeth Marvel as Yvonne. Marvel is a powerful actress who blew audiences away with her performance as Blanche du Bois in Flemish director Ivo van Hoveís staging of "A Streetcar Named Desire" at New York Theater Workshop a few seasons ago. Sheís practically unrecognizable at first -- in her frumpy sweater and glasses, her hair scrunched into wayward ponytails, she looks like an overgrown version of Lynda Barryís cartoon character Marlys. And she wends her way impressively through Yvonneís spasms of rebellion and protectiveness, even managing the impossible task of justifying her leap from Mary Magdalene to Major Barbara. 

Ann Guilbert, whom you may recognize with a shock as Millie from "The Dick Van Dyke Show," is adorable and hilarious playing Selma, a woman who lives on the outskirts of otherís peopleís identities and who becomes the truth teller of the play. If Juan Carlos Hernandez seems somewhat blank as Brother Harmon, heís playing the most difficult role. The hardest moment for him to pull off is The Kiss of Life. Itís difficult to believe that heís really fallen in love with the bratty slut weíve been watching Yvonne enact. How much is calculation, how much is bravado? To my mind, itís a fairy-tale moment that could have used some theatrical razzle-dazzle or at least some magical foreplay devised by director Lucas (who, after all, is the author of "Prelude to a Kiss").

"Play Yourself" is not a perfect play, by any means. It explores a multitude of deep philosophical questions about identity, the self, the soul, time, love, and God, and at a certain point the playís themes come unmoored from the psychological reality of the characters and float around in the air like poetic mist. And yet I think that very quality is what makes it one of the richest plays that Kondoleon ever wrote, one thatís worth going back to again and again.

www.Greekworks.com, August 1, 2002