Reverse Psychology
Ridiculous Theatrical Company

70 Scenes of Halloween
Theater at St. Clement's

An Act of Kindness
Harold Clurman Theater

Disparate Action Desperate Action 
Re.Cher.Chez Studio

Charles Ludlam once tried to convince me that there is no such thing as a Ridiculous "style." "If it were a style; I would have proven the point already and it would be a codified thing," he insisted. Well, it's true that the repertory of Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatrical Company has skipped around, with astonishing aplomb, from 19th-century classics (Camille) to country-and- western musical (Corn), gangster melodrama (Hot Ice), cabaret psycho-thriller (The Ventriloquist's Wife) and fairy tale (The Enchanted Pig), to name a few. But the Ridiculous acting style is pretty much set, and that's what's disappointing about the new RTC work Reverse Psychology. The script is one of Ludlam's most ambitious and accomplished ever, an intricately worked-out farce about two psychiatrists and their patients that knowingly spoofs both sides of the shrinker-shrinkee relationship in hilariously accurate psycho-jargon. However, the production, which Ludlam also directed, lapses into the garish, children's theater broadness typical of Ridiculous ventures rather than seizing the opportunity to match the crisp Noel Coward/Joe Orton nature of the script.

The chief offender, oddly enough, is Ludlam himself. He plays the wimpy Dr. Leonard Silver, who is given to whining ("We straight men are an oppressed majority") and infantile tantrums – no wonder his moneyed, Amazonian wife (played by Ridiculous newcomer Charlotte Forbes) wants to be artificially inseminated by a "name donor," preferably an Olympic athlete. The play opens with Ludlam tumbling drunkenly into a hotel bed with Eleanor (Black-Eyed Susan), whom he has picked up while jogging, and a parallel scene in which Forbes (whose character is Dr. Karen Gold) picks up an arrogant, penniless painter (Freddie, played by Bill Vehr) in a museum. We learn soon enough that Eleanor and Freddie are married to each other and that they have unwittingly slept with each other's psychiatrist.

This beginning is acted straightforwardly enough to promise a Ridiculous remake of, say, Private Lives. Alas, when Ludlam has his first scene with Vehr, he launches into his own brand of nerdy mugging, along with a string of agreeably bad jokes and stereotyped shrink mannerisms (e.g., various bizarre accents). Everyone else apparently takes the cue from him, because from there the performance gets looser, louder and more hysterical.

Less funny, too, because we're no longer caught off guard; the tension between form and content has drained away. We no longer have to pay attention to the jokes; we know that if someone stands still, sticks out his or her chin and yells something, it must be something funny – but since they’ve already decided it’s funny, we’re less inclined to laugh. This may simply be because the piece is new and the company is still hammering out a performance rhythm; in a couple of weeks, perhaps it will run smoother. But this predictably is also the liability of the Ridiculous style.

The best thing about the Ridiculous actors is their freedom from “naturalism”; they play make-believe in a theater, so their playing is unapologetically “theatrical,” often openly presentational. They’re one of the few troupes who sustain that rare, here-we-are-today-and-anything-can-happen spontaneity, both as a group and as individuals. Ludlam has had his fine moments (particularly Camille), but the best example is Black-Eyed Susan, who is, believe it or not, one of the great actors of New York; she has a unique talent for embodying multiple aspects of a personality and demonstrating unswaying commitment to the most fleeting comic conceit without resorting to campiness or confessionalism (the two easy-way-outs). It seems to me, though, that a farce like Reverse Psychology offers a chance for the Ridiculous to exercise some - dare I say conventional? -- restraint, to rely on language, action and situation for comedy rather than madcap mugging.

Nonetheless, there's much to enjoy about the play. The premise of shrinks as fucked-up as the patients they're supposedly helping is satisfying if not exactly original. What is impressive is the way Ludlam has strung the deluded banalities of everyday analysands end-to-end to form thoroughly credible dialogue. The play has its share of borrowings - a snatch of Rutb Draper, some Shakespeare, a final tableau with Bill Vehr in drag that’s right out of What the Butler Saw, and who knows what else. And I'm surprised Ludlam didn't do more with the wonder drug "RP" (the opposite of Midsummer Night's Dream's love potion) unveiled in the second act, but it makes for silly fun.  ("How is this medicine administered?" demands Ludlam. "Let's freebase it," suggests Vehr.) And the priceless scene between Eleanor and Dr. Gold wickedly exposes all the nasty habits shrinks have: checking their watches, daydreaming, taking phone calls, gossiping about other patients and terminating the session just when you're about to have an important revelation about that time you walked in and caught Mommy and Daddy "doing it." 

Matthew Maguire's terrific production of Jeffrey M. Jones' 70 Scenes of Halloween solves the problem of writing style vs. acting style in an interesting way. The play is almost a cartoon, a succession of brief scenes -- some Stan Mack-realistic, some perfectly absurd -- separated by blackouts. A young, hip suburban couple sits at home on Halloween watching TV, greeting trick-or-treaters, drinking, quarreling and so on, while two all-purpose alter-egos known as "the Witch” and “the Beast" make strange appearances. The acting could be similarly stylized, but it’s not. It’s “real,” at least for the “real people,” named Jeff and Joan – after the playwright and his wife – and played superbly by Christopher McCann and Frederikke Meister. This works because two different things interact implicitly (the flat writing and the organic acting, the abstract characters and the concrete ones), saying two things rather than one thing twice.

The play would be better if it didn’t try to get heavy and vague at the end and start invoking the harvest gods and the universal spirit of man, because it’s really about a man and a woman sitting home at night, an that’s a whole world in itself (see Wallace Shawn’s Marie and Bruce which 70 Scenes would resemble if it were bleaker). Flaws and all, the play makes for a funny and theatrical evening; it has the something’s-creepy-in-suburbia air of Sam Shepard’s Buried Child (which McCann also acted in), the quick takes and precisely overheard dialogue of David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago. Jim Clayburgh, the Wooster (nee Performance) Group’s resident designer, did the wonderful set, an evocative slice of a suburban double-decker. 

An Act of Kindness is a two-character play that spends all evening trying vainly to justify detaining two unlikely characters in the same room. This kind of play is usually born of a lack of imagination, a low budget, or both; another recent example is Circle Rep’s The Woolgatherer. There is almost no good reason for such plays to exist, except perhaps to offer actors an easy tour de force. As The Woolgatherer belonged to Peter Weller, An Act of Kindness is Scotty Bloch’s. Bloch is the sort of actress fiercely admired by directors and playwrights (she’s on the playwright’s-conference/staged-reading circuit) but little-known to the general public. Here she plays a preposterous Blanche du Bois clone who picks up a boring writer (all too obviously a stand-in for author Joseph Julian) at the local pub and drags him home to her “crummy furnished room with a good address.”

The play is trash, but Bloch plays this essentially schizophrenic woman with frightening skill. She is able to be ditzy, hurt, bitchy, drunk, obnoxious or inane without ever worrying about making herself look noble or glamorous – a feat few actresses can achieve. It was a chore to sit through two acts of Kindness, but it was worth it to watch Bloch, during her partner's 10-minute monologue, sit in her dirty robe, smoke a cigarette, lick her lips, wearing a mask of utter indifference and incipient alcoholic stupor, and slowly drift off to sleep. Scotty Bloch is an example of American method acting at its finest and deserves a lot better than An Act of Kindness.

Terrorism - the art of breaking the social contract to get something done in this inert world - is on the minds of smart punk kids the world wide, but on the Lower East Side it takes the form of theater, either on the street or in dingy, dank basements smelling of new paint -- like Re.Cher.Chez studio. Intellectual usually spells ineffectual, and Chris Kraus' dense, logorrheic performance piece Disparate Action Desperate Action threatens to spin off into impenetrability. Kraus herself and Tom Yemm (in matching maroon men's suits) attempt to conduct an erudite discussion of the Transcendentalists, political art and '"the myth of personal freedom," and keep slipping into romantic reveries and the frantic banalities of cartoon characters "Susie Plaistow" and "Joe Sloman." But if the piece seems to have a head full of ideas without a single connection, I suspect that it reflects Kraus' subject: the way we get trapped in language when we try to make sense of our experience.

Soho News, September 24, 1980