Sealed with a kiss
Paul Taylor expects great things of the American playwright Phyllis Nag y in the year ahead. And on the strength of her latest play, he will not be dis appointed Her high-brow experimentalism is irrigated by gutsy emotionality She revolts against the dumb TV-movie mode of tackling issues
Wednesday 28 December 1994
Both these examples hale from The Strip, the forthcoming play by the young New York-born dramatist Phyllis Nagy who, since she moved to London three years back, has scored with two fringe successes. At the Theatre Upstairs, there was Weldon Rising, set in New York city's meat-packing district during an apocalyptic heatwave. It kept replaying the brutal, motiveless killing of a gay man from the point of view of the various witnesses (his frightened, semi-closeted lover; a lesbian couple who live off shop-lifted beer; and a transvestite hooker who refers to himself exclusively in the third person) so as to explore, in its jaggedly comic, refreshingly impious way, the surprising non-solidarity of gay subcultures in the face of such violence. This was followed at the Almeida last April by Butterfly Kiss, of which more later.
With The Strip (opening in March of next year), Nagy hits the main stage of the Royal Court, an event whose indisputable auspiciousness is only slightly qualified, for anyone who has had a sneak peak at the script, by the thought that it would take the great acreage of the Olivier itself to give proper house-room to a play that's so multiply layered - and in such an intricate, oddball manner.
A character's inspired dreams are at one point referred to as being "like a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle of a Jackson Pollock painting. Unfathomable but logical." The Strip juggles several strands of complicatedly interconnected plot involving (among other things): a female impersonator; a would-be Republican senator who is on the run in London after blowing up 21 black Baptist ministers at a truck stop; a vivid collocation of modern tackiness and ancient myth in the stage-dominating repro Sphinx at theLuxor Hotel, Las Vegas; and a character with two identities who functions as a surrogate dramatist / director in the hapless, quasi- omnipotent mode of the Duke in Measure for Measure. At times it makes the piecing together of a Jackson Pollock jigsaw feel like plain sailing.
What the play manages to be above all, though, is very funny, in a dry, screwily syncopated style, as it sketches out its heightened, hectic picture of a world where the debased values of Las Vegas (no time, no dress code, no natural resources of its own) are on the rampage, where people go to "croupier school" or "massage classes" rather than acquire an education.
The English director Steven Pimlott, who staged the premiere of Butterfly Kiss and will be at the helm once again for The Strip, finds himself drawn to Nagy's plays because they are "not wrapped in the pseudo-naturalism" of much English theatre writing. They have "a freedom with time, place and reality" that reminds him more of a European than an English tradition, though in Nagy's case this high-brow experimentalism is irrigated by a very gutsy, American, straight-from-the-belly emotionality. In her oeuvre, the present, the past, the imagined past and the imagined future occupy the same floor space. Nagy studied music, and directors of her work confess to feeling like orchestral conductors. But though it would be strictly correct to talk of leitmotivsand contrapuntal effects in the structuring of her plays, it would sound altogether too arty and precious for work that has a strong pulpy, populist streak.
Like the drama of Tony (Angels in America) Kushner, with whose writing her own has certain affinities, Nagy's plays are in revolt against the dumb TV-movie-of-the-week mode of tackling topical issues. Instead of adhering to a stale, sub-docudrama formula, her work confounds preconceptions by turning form inside out in a tragicomic free-for-all. Pinning down some of the great secular tensions of our times, they are simultaneously preoccupied by the spiritual world and the whole notion of Fate. There's a Jacobean range and richness and it can be no coincidence that, just as it took a Kushner to entice Declan Donnellan to direct his first new play, so it took a Nagy to lure Pimlott away from the world of opera and ancient and modern classics.
Significantly, the two English plays which won the most plaudits this last year both took an opposite tack. Rather than reinvent form from the foundations upwards, they assumed the disguise of being tried and trusted genre-pieces (My Night with Reg, a Boulevard comedy; Dead Funny, a sitcom) before whipping away the disguise to divulge something more painful and less domestic underneath. But it would be wrong to draw too much from this distinction. In America, where as Nagy says, "they're only p repared to tolerate one of anything", she is best known for her stage adaptation of Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter; it's in England that the work closest to her heart is performed.
In 1994, by intriguing coincidence, there were two plays by American female dramatists which both ended with a mother and daughter singing "Shine on / Shine on harvest moon" to each other. In just about every other respect, though, Nagy's Butterfly Kiss,which undertook a funny-sickly post-modernist inquest into a case of lesbian matricide, could scarcely be more different from Wendy Wasserstein's The Sisters Rosenzweig which, for all its relentless kookiness, was as calculated to trigger pre-programmedlaughs and not to offend the enamelled sensitivities of the Broadway matinee crowd as a Neil Simon play.
Nagy's methods carry their own risks, of course, a major one being the danger, if the performance rhythm sags or falters, of diffuseness, of the piece seeming to add up to less than the sum of its bewitching parts. Then there's the risk of weirdo-overload and the moral qualm that, in attending with such flair to the metaphoric aspects of a play, she neglects certain of the more humdrum human ones. 1995 offers two chances to check out this talent, since in addition to The Strip, Nagy's early, Mobil Award -winning and as yet unproduced play Disappeared, a study of the ramifications of a woman's disappearance, takes to the stage (in February) and then to the road in a co-production between Leicester Haymarket and Derek Wax's Midnight Theatre Company.
In Butterfly Kiss, someone is described as being the "kind of girl who's accused of having promise". By now, though, we can accuse Nagy of possessing rather more than that.
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