“I am feeling very depressed. I’m thinking of killing myself. Or maybe going to a nearby mall and killing other people, and then killing myself. Maybe I’ll go to a theater and kill people there and then kill myself. You’re lucky I’m in the play, and not in the audience. Talk to you again later.”
If the above quote opening “Turning Off The Morning News,” the dark new comedy by Christopher Durang, proved unsettling to the opening night audience, nothing that subsequently comes out of the mouth of the otherwise fine actor John Pankow, who plays the character Jimmy, is as outrageously discomforting as is the gibberish that flows inanely and incessantly from the otherwise also fine actor Kristine Nielsen who plays his wife, Polly.
Polly is a certified loony who (throughout the play) makes excuses (often directly to us) for her husband’s constant threats and anti-social behavior. A pro at Durang speech, Nielsen uses all the familiar ticks, twists, and twinges at her disposal to play a totally unmoored character far beyond therapy.
Also a graduate of Durang’s absurdist dramatic academy (“Why Torture is Wrong, and The People Who Love Them”), Pankow plays a depressed truck driver who has been fired for falling asleep at the wheel. His recourse is to arm himself with a pair of automatic rifles and announce to Polly and to his teenage son Timmy (as played with applicable stupefaction by Nicholas Podany),“I can either kill you and Timmy, and then myself. Or I can go to the mall and shoot strangers and then kill myself.” We have heard him make this threat, but this time he has put on a pig’s head and he’s off to the mall.
Durang’s play, now having its world premiere, asks us to take a tragi-comical look at a seriously unhinged family. The socio-political terrain on which the play’s characters live isn’t all that remote from that which has previously served Durang and company. The problem here is that this play is not very good, not very funny, and not very clear in its perspective.
Polly keeps calling her son “Polly” because she can’t remember his name. As a result, Timmy is taunted by his schoolmates who call him Polly. Yet she constantly questions Timmy whether he has made any friends at school and threatens to home-school him when he says no.
Atypical suburbanites, Polly, Jimmy, and Timmy, are the kind usually seen as aliens for their eccentricities, even to their neighbors. Meet Rosalind (Jenn Harris) who only leaves her home wearing a pillowcase over her head with two holes for her eyes and one for her mouth. She is paranoid about protecting herself from the sun’s rays after having 24 basal cells removed.
Other neighbors are an unmarried couple Selena (Rachel Nicks) and Clifford (Robert Sella). Selena is apparently helping the depressed Clifford to face life again following the death of his wife and child killed by a truck driver who fell asleep at the wheel. Daily affirmations of “All is well” do little to ease his sorrow when the crazy neighbors accept an invitation to visit. We discover that Jimmy is not only a brute but a bigot when he asks Clifford, “Why are you married to a black woman?” Adding to his growing list of improprieties, Jimmy has previously tried to choke Polly to death. In response she asks, “Have you taken your St. John’s Wart today?”
If you have previously loved Durang’s audacious, irreverent, and often funny perspective of the world through his many plays (as I have) and may have enjoyed (as I didn’t) his most successful play, the Tony Award-winning “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” you will probably be astounded that this new play found its way to the stage in its current form. What has found its way most successfully to the stage is the clever setting designed by Beowulf Boritt in which a cartoon-ish vision of two suburban homes enjoys the mechanics of a turntable.
The play, as directed by Emily Mann, evidently wants to make a statement about a world that has become topsy-turvy, resistant to intelligent discourse, and disassociated from any recognizable normalcy. In some ways, this play, like many in Durang’s canon, has its roots in the purposely abstracted absurdities of life and how people learn to live with them.
One gets the feeling that behind the strained chatter and the unfunny antics thrust upon six talented actors in “Turning Off The Morning News” are, indeed, the roots of a provocative play. I don’t think most of us need to turn on the morning news to really see how relentlessly risible life is. Nor do I think that “Turning Off The Morning News” is going to keep us from still wanting more from Durang.
Turning Off The Morning News, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Through Sunday, June 3. $25 to $93.50. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org