Photo by Joe Foster

Exactly halfway through Jacqueline Wright’s Eat Me, everyone in the audience capable of rational thought or sympathy must be feeling they’ve had enough. By this time, the protagonist, Tommy, played by Wright herself, has attempted suicide by chomping down sedatives she eats from a bowl like popcorn while she giggles over reruns of Mayberry R.F.D.; Frank (Tony Forkush), one of the two men who break into her apartment while she lies unconscious on her tattered living room sofa, has tried to rape her; the other, Bob (David Ojalvo), has gleefully bound her hands and feet. While Frank is out getting snacks, Bob celebrates Tommy’s return to consciousness by gagging her with his penis (she vomits, apologizes), dragging her around her squalid apartment by a leash made from his belt, and forcing her to eat out of the cat food dish while singing the meow-meow song from the famous Meow Mix commercial. (“I don’t know it,” she protests. “Everyone knows it!” he insists. “Sing it!”) The brutality is worse for the whimsy. Like the now-iconic image of Private Lynndie England in a playful shooting posture, cigarette dangling from her smiling lips as she aims an imaginary gun at a naked prisoner’s genitals, it reminds us what none of us ever wants to admit: Relieved of any sense of conscience or responsibility, a person might find that torturing another human is fun.

But just at the point when it becomes too much to endure, Eat Me’s plot turns inside out: At the climax of Bob’s cruelty, Tommy rises, bloodied, staggering and invigorated by the concreteness of physical pain — humiliation was harder to take — as well as the revelation that Bob has nothing left. He’s insulted her, beaten her and urinated on her; he’s called her names, choked her, threatened to drown her. To a woman who so recently awoke to the disappointment that she was still breathing, it’s still not much. “I never thought I’d meet a bigger loser than me,” she mutters to herself when she realizes she no longer cares what Bob does to her, and proceeds to deliver a monologue as eloquent as it is profane about Bob’s origins in excrement. Watching and listening as Tommy spits her words through blood and her lingering grogginess, Bob begins to understand that he has nothing on her despair; she’s as crazy as he is, maybe worse. His bellicose harangues continue, but they ring hollow. She mocks him; they fight; he breaks down. And slowly, incredibly but not implausibly, the distance closes between them.

On the night I saw the play, early in its run at Theater of NOTE, I noticed that the only people laughing were men, a fact worth noting not because men are cold-blooded and evil, but because women may have had an easier time imagining themselves in Tommy’s place. Wright gives the role a comic edge few other actors could imitate; you can imagine someone with less nuanced timing ruining some of her more earnest lines and mangling the role’s physicality, which at times is more important than the dialogue. Under Chris Field’s direction, Wright’s Tommy is strangely enchanting; it’s not hard to feel for her. The laughter was maddening. But Wright didn’t create Eat Me to have it subjected to knee-jerk feminist analysis; if she had, she would have steered it in the direction of so many stories about men’s violence against women, ending in a triumphant escape or tragic death. Instead, she does something much more delicate, and more radically humane: She strips the torturer of his power to control. It’s not an easy trick, and not a flawlessly executed one — Eat Me almost unavoidably jumps from viciousness to compassion too abruptly — but it’s a useful thought with which to contemplate a world larger than the problem of violent men and helpless women.


It seems dangerous to make too much of this — Eat Me is, after all, a small play about a complicated and misery-fraught relationship between two utterly wrecked people — but it’s also just true: I couldn’t watch Bob cinch his belt around Tommy’s neck and force her to “crawl like the cat that you are” without confronting some of the same emotions a similar image from Abu Ghraib evoked. And I couldn’t think about the play without reflecting on some of the same quandaries about futility and power that face any conscious reader of the daily newspaper. What does it mean when authority falls to hopeless and demoralized people? What happens when threats of death and torture fail to sufficiently intimidate people whose lives are so ruined they have nothing left to lose? Tommy, unarmed and slight, becomes dangerous to Bob when he realizes she welcomes death; Bob, whom Ojalvo initially plays with the rowdy hatefulness we associate with the people we call rednecks, has much in common with those prison guards at Abu Ghraib, hillbilly anomalies in an otherwise sane and sophisticated system. We may wonder how they got that way; Wright reminds us the reasons run deep.

So much of Eat Me goes against prevailing wisdom about violence, its perpetrators and victims that it’s destined to be labeled controversial and anger some sensitive viewers. And yet so much of it makes some sort of brave and uncompromising sense that it’s impossible to dismiss the play as either exploitation or antifeminist backlash. (In fact, I came to conclude that it’s not about gender politics at all, which is perhaps why Wright gave her woman a man’s name.) As Tommy and Bob’s scarred histories push through — a process that starts when he berates her for not having written a suicide note and presumes to write one on her behalf — we’re reminded that cruelty to oneself and others comes from the same place of unexpressed suffering, a place that exists in every one of us to some degree. The audience may find that an uncomfortable revelation; so do Tommy and Bob. And that may be Eat Me’s cruelest, and most vivid, point: The knowledge that restrains us, collectively or individually, from bringing pain and ruin to others’ lives may also make it impossible for us to go on living. Told to the murmur of Martin Carrillo’s piano music and a television stuck ominously on afternoon reruns — an element that underscores the vaguely sickening mood — it’s a devastating story. Like so many devastating stories well told, however, Eat Me is ultimately enriching. If you don’t turn away from it, you leave knowing you’ve witnessed something whose implications are bigger than its modest parts.

EAT ME | By JACQUELINE WRIGHT | At the McCADDEN PLACE THEATER, 1157 McCadden Place, Hollywood | (323) 856-8611 Through September 18

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