Fish Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly, but just how much a girl has to love that man of hers is clearly open to debate in Gus Edwards 1977 play, The Offering, now having its belated West Coast premiere at the Riprap Studio Theater. The story opens dreamily, eerily upon a cramped living room as an old man sits staring at late-night cowboys and Indians on TV.
How can you watch that? a young woman dully asks as she enters the rooms cathode glow. She could be referring to the sets fuzzy reception, but she might also be questioning the Westerns dubious racial message. After all, Big Bob Tyrone (Charles Weldon) and Princess (Sandra Maria Nutt) are African-American, living in a basement flat in downtown Manhattan. Guessing the plays meaning and its authors intentions, it turns out, will become a major audience preoccupation both a strength and a weakness. This works enigmatic shadows often lend a playful menace to the evening, but sometimes they simply spread confusion.
The apartments sepulchral calm is soon broken by a doorbell ring, which the taciturn pair ignore. The next night they decide to respond to the buzzer and find themselves visited by Martin (Christopher Warren), a young man who, years ago, learned the finer points of hustling and stealing from Bob. The energetic, can-do Martin, now a Las Vegas businessman, seems to be doing well for himself and has dropped by with his showgirl paramour, Ginny (Katia Bokor). While Martins flattering, solicitous chatter barely causes Bob and Princess to blink (even when he offers them six grand as a gift), Ginnys mute presence jolts Bob out of whatever existential funk has embalmed his emotions while stoking Princess apprehensions.
Her suspicions are aroused with good reason, as we learn that Princess is Bobs wife, having married him when she was a teenager. (The expression old enough to be her father could be stitched on Bobs coat of arms.) Ginny is an obsequious, leggy blond actress Bokor wears the shortest skirt I have ever seen on a woman who was not leaning against a brass pole. Before long she has provoked Bob out of his PJs and into nattier threads; with each scene, the old man, as though emerging from a vampiric slumber, draws vigor from the sight of those legs and blond hair, and claims Ginny as his new woman oblivious to the anguish this causes Martin and the jilted Princess.
The Offering careens between naturalism and hyperbole. One moment Bob and Martin are two ghetto celebrities pimpishly discussing their women as though the latter were racehorses; the next, Martin has the rug pulled out from under him when Ginny inexplicably accompanies Bob to the welfare office never to return to Martins bed. Martin is left with all the more egg on his face because hed respectfully offered up Ginny to Bob as a vicarious signifier of the elders vanished youth; he just hadnt counted on Ginny jumping ship or rather, sheets.
If Martins miscalculation makes him a buffoon (You faggot niggahs make me laugh, Princess tells him), Bobs betrayal of the stoic Princess simply makes no sense, that his respect for her would suddenly evaporate because of a new skirt. The result of all this is a fable without a moral, a play caught in a no-mans land between absurdism and the kitchen sink.
Accordingly, the production, under Weldons direction, sends mixed signals. The shows uneasy demarcation of tone comes with Warrens turn as Martin a smooth portrayal of a hood with a decidedly Kissingeresque appreciation of power-as-aphrodisiac. The problem is that the other actors seem to be performing in another kind of play, one whose characters inhabit an almost nonverbal world. Also, Bokors wispy, tenuous line deliveries, marked by a slight Russian accent, leave us guessing as to whether shes intentionally spacy or just not connecting with the material. Likewise, Ed DeShaes lighting plot is appropriately moody, but John S. Nemeth Jr.s set, with its white-painted walls, cheery wooden shutters and ivy planter (not to mention an entrance door with no locks) more suggests a Valley ranch house than a Lower Manhattan cellar.
The show ultimately belongs to its two leads. As Bob, Weldon (who created the role of Martin in the original Negro Ensemble Company production) masterfully constructs a character of aged hubris: a glass of E&J brandy in hand, boorish reminiscences rolling off his tongue. Nutt, too, is a stately presence as the terse, somnambulant Princess, whose sleepwalk through life abruptly ends with Bobs loutish behavior. Neither of the two actors wastes a syllable or misses a beat, and both would feel at home in any damp evening of Pinter.
The program notes tell us that Brooke Purdys Plunge takes place on the rooftop of a New York brownstone. We have no reason to doubt this, as Joel Daavids highly articulated set, which he has also evocatively lit, features a tattered clothesline, grimy skylight, blistered window sills and all the sad detritus that tenant dwellers sooner or later push to the top of their urban anthills. But we know this will be no ordinary brownstone, for the program also informs us that it is located a half-mile from Ground Zero. The story opens on Ruby and Jack (Brooke and Doug Purdy), a couple who meet here one night, half a year after 9/11.
Jack stealthily surveys the view from the top; Ruby, who lives in an adjacent apartment, figures that hes scoping out the roof for a suicide leap, a gesture she so belittles that Jack slinks away. He returns the next night to kill himself, but Ruby thwarts him once more, this time by calling over her friends to watch. Rubys pals (Brittany James, Laura Ulsh and Mark Wyrick) are a tough house, and soon ridicule Jacks suicide technique and aesthetics, and then his motives. He retreats soon after a clownish suicide-prevention worker (Ryan Bollman) appears on the scene with a bullhorn and first-aid kit.
The play, which up until now has merely been, to put it charitably, zany, now takes a plunge and it aint pretty. Turns out Jacks a novelist who sold a book idea to Hollywood which, true to the forces of nature, destroyed the story in a film version. Now he wants some ill-conceived payback against his agent, whose office lies nearby. Turns out also that Ruby has a morbid phobia of sunlight that Jack is determined to cure. Huh?
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We keep hearing Jack complain that, compared to 9/11, his gripes with existence must seem pretty well, petty. The problem is that we sense hes only saying this for effect and that hes the kind of guy who would write a suicide note in an Auschwitz meadow over a botched highlight job. Its soon apparent that this comedy, which is also directed and produced by the Purdys, is not an ironic send-up of showcase theater, but the thing in itself. Forget Ground Zero, forget New York Purdys characters exist solely to allow their creators to demonstrate a few synthetic emotions and call it a night.
Once upon a time, Darryl Pinckney memorably wrote in The New Yorker months before 9/11, people moved to New York to become New Yorkers. Then people moved to New York and thought it perfectly O.K. to remain themselves. The Purdys have perfectly created such characters, and Plunge remains a hollow lesson in self-advertisement.
THE OFFERING | BY GUS EDWARDS | At RIPRAP STUDIO THEATER, 5755 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood | Through December 7 | (818) 990-7498
PLUNGE | BY BROOKE PURDY | Tiny Riot Productions at ACTORS CIRCLE THEATER, 7313 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood | Through November 15 | (818) 563-4772