Rachel Fitzsimons loves Christmas: Bing Crosby on the radio,
giving gifts, the reminders of childhood, the way snow sucks
up sound, even the way television stores up all the happy news
for Christmas Eve. She's so euphoric, babbling under the
covers as Santa's making his rounds, that she's prepared to
forgive her remote husband, Tom, for not buying the Christmas
present she wants most, a puppy. But he has a more expensive
surprise for her, which he remorsefully confesses in the nick
of time: he's taken out a contract on her life.
Next thing you know, Rachel has accepted a ride and is
speeding down the freeway, leaving behind her kids, her
clothes, her friends, her name, even her wedding ring, which
she throws out the window. "I always wanted to do
something reckless, you know? Run away in the middle of the
night in your slip and your slippers with some strange man who
would ruin your reputation and disappoint your parents
terribly and disappoint your friends and just make you really
happy. Well," she burbles, "I think we get these
ideas from rock 'n' roll songs."
The plot to Craig Lucas's Reckless is so unlikely that
it's downright life-like. Lloyd, the man who picks Rachel up,
takes her home to meet his paraplegic deaf-mute girlfriend,
Pooty. With the flexibility that only innocents possess,
Rachel moves in with them and gets a job through Lloyd at a
non-profit foreign-relief agency. Another cruel Christmas
prank sends Rachel fleeing again; this time she winds up mute
in a shelter for the homeless. After nearly being shot on a TV
talk show, she regains her speech, becomes a therapist, and
moves to Alaska, where one of her clients is a troubled boy
named Tom Jr. who thinks she resembles his mother.
The purposely loony, coincidence-laden plot of Reckless
and its bright comic surface are a mask, however, for the
essentially philosophical questions at the heart of the play
-- questions about time and identity, how things change and
how they stay the same, the randomness of things and yet their
interconnectedness. "Things happen for a reason,"
Rachel keeps saying in her sensible-mom way, until she is
forced to ask, "Or do they?" One of the things that
makes the play so satisfying and psychologically truthful is
-- paradoxically -- its send-up of conventional psychology.
Psychoanalysis' gift to 20th-century theater was the kind of
drama that sets out a conflict or character flaw and then
proceeds to track down the motivation -- often some childhood
trauma -- that explains the behavior in question. A textbook
example that comes to mind is Lanford Wilson's Talley's
Folly, in which the desire of two people to get together
is blocked by a secret obstacle: Sally Talley can't have
babies. When she finally confesses this shameful fact, minutes
before the final curtain, Matt Friedman says, surprise, I
don't want kids, and they're free to marry.
This kind of drama is understandably popular, since it calls
for a classic whodunit structure, suspenseful in the telling,
satisfying in the resolution. That it betrays a rather
simple-minded understanding of human psychology has not
escaped the notice of playwrights like Lucas.
In Reckless, the surreal chain of events sends Rachel
to a succession of shrinks who keep trying to saddle her with
what are clearly their own fixations -- parental loss,
psychosomatic illness, birth trauma, lack of self-esteem. It's
a hilarious and savage comment on the kind of trendy therapy
deemed successful when the patient embraces some pathological
identity ("I am an anorexic," "I am a child of
an alcoholic") at the expense of all other experience. Reckless
dramatizes instead the kind of psychological quest that
results not in laying blame but in understanding that (not
why) things go awry despite the most careful plans and,
despite disaster after disaster, things can turn out okay.
Truly learning from experience, Lucas suggests, almost
requires transcending narrow self-definitions. Not without
pain, not without puzzlement, Rachel becomes someone she never
set out to be.
The chirpy, accommodating, naive but not stupid heroine of Reckless
-- both in Lucas's writing and in Robin Bartlett's
virtuosically nuanced performance -- is reminiscent of various
Christopher Durang characters, especially the central
character of The Marriage of Bette and Boo
(unforgettably played at the Public Theater by Joan Allen).
The difference is that Durang's characters generally achieve
survival through anger, Lucas's through against-the-odds
optimism. It's a tribute to his sweet temperament and wild
imagination that Reckless sustains its comic buoyancy
while dealing almost relentlessly with dark subjects -- pain,
loss, alienation, nameless middle-of-the-night fears, and the
chaos of the universe.
It's a familiar strategy for Lucas; his plays Blue Window
and Three Postcards were both ostensibly plotless
comedies about groups of yuppie-ish friends gathering for a
meal and chatting in that elliptical slang that passes for
contemporary American speech. Yet they both managed to capture
all kinds of slippery, disturbing social truths about
intimacy, secrecy, and how little of our real selves we share
with our friends. Reckless is an earlier play, first
performed for a brief run in 1983; now revised and revived by
Circle Rep in a brilliant production directed by Norman Rene,
it provides an occasion to acknowledge that Craig Lucas has
joined the ranks of American theater's finest comic writers
alongside Durang, John Guare, and Wallace Shawn.
Theatrically ingenious, intricately literary plays that eschew
pat conclusions often confuse and put off audiences (it's a
perennial problem for good playwrights such as Len Jenkin,
Eric Overmyer, and Harry Kondoleon). Lucas's advantage in that
regard is that, as a former performer himself, he trusts what
actors can do, so he lets them embody what the play's about
rather than making bald announcements about it. he is abetted
in this by his longtime collaborator Norman Rene, who is a
genius at eliciting concrete, actable expressions of fine
Their production of Blue Window (captured for posterity
on film for American Playhouse) was one of the most
amazing achievements in ensemble acting I've ever seen;
working with the Circle Rep company, Rene achieves nearly as
impressive results. Watch, for example, the way John Dossett
and the remarkable Welker White converse in sign language as
Lloyd and Pooty -- their open-faced all-Americanness only
emphasizes the mystery of their relationship.
Perhaps Rene's finest coup is the suggestion that the entire
play is a dream, an overly contented suburban mother's fantasy
of living a life unlike her own, Alice in Wonderland
style. The clues are all there, from Loy Arcenas's dreamscape
set to Bartlett's pensive final moment (as der Bingle croons,
"I'll be home for Christmas/If only in my dreams").
Rather than pinning down one solution, though, it's a pleasure
to let the possibilities multiply in your mind. That's the
best kind of play.
7 Days, October 12, 1988