An Inconceivable Party

The Catastrophic Theatre debuted their production of Wallace Shawn’s Our Late Night at DiverseWorks last Friday night to great reception. The play is an at-times-dark, at-times-comedic string of conversations circling the absurdities and difficulties of sexual and personal connection. Our Late Night was Shawn’s first produced play, first put on in New York in 1975, and despite the awards and recognition it garnered at the time, the script’s difficulty and potential to offend kept it unpublished until only recently. Catastrophic’s production is only the fourth run world-wide and marks another step in director and founder Jason Nodler’s mission to ultimately have put on all of Shawn’s plays (he already brought Marie and Bruce and The Hotel Play to Houston with his old theatre company Infernal Bridegroom Productions).

Though Shawn’s dramatic work might not be terribly familiar to most of us, there’s a good chance you’d recognize him as a character actor (think “Inconceivable!” from The Princess Bride or the debate teacher from Clueless). After seeing Our Late Night (and reading Shawn’s biography in the program) it’s hard not to be impressed by how broad and deep his talent and sensibilities run. Our Late Night takes place entirely within an apartment living room, following a seven-member cast from the lead-up to the aftermath of a bizarre high-rise cocktail party. Catastrophic’s staging is immaculate, from the absolutely gorgeous set design (Greg Dean) to the seamless lighting changes (Kirk Markley) and the evocative but hard-to-place music (Andrew Harper). There are moments when the scene changes seem completely and effortlessly cinematic. The set serves the script well, putting up a pillared facade between the actors and the audience to create the sense of peering in through the floor-to-ceiling windows of a luxury apartment. The effected voyeurism is not only a safety net for the viewer as the characters divulge in increasingly-wild stories of sexual desire and revulsion, it also allows the script to stay within its own comfort zone. Despite the decades-old tales of Our Late Night‘s offensiveness, it doesn’t come across that Shawn is trying to directly provoke the audience with in-your-face assertions of truth and hypocrisy. Rather the script seems to present a way that we could talk about these strange parts of our psyches but that we don’t — perhaps a way that we would talk about them if we thought we’d be understood.

Catastrophic has made a point of including a disclaimer with their promotional material — “Recommended for brave audiences with strong constitutions” — and though this is probably a prudent move on their part, the play’s content itself is no more shocking than what one might come across in the sort of “gross out” humor typical in most modern-day film and tv (not to mention the internet). The way the play presents the material however, is novel and interesting, and is not based in the sort of one-up-manship of a gross-for-gross’s-sake mentality. The careful wording of the play, which attains an impressive breadth and variety in its metaphors, images, and vocabulary, mixes the disturbing with the natural and evolves in a sort of dream-logic that, more than grossing out the audience, seems intent on showing us that there are ways we want to explain certain emotions, about people and about words themselves, that, like a dream, make sense but that we will never be able to successfully express to the world at-large. The impossibility of such communication doesn’t keep the characters from trying, and as they continually embarrass themselves in uncensored revelry, the audience comes to realize that we don’t know these characters at all. It is an embarrassment felt by the audience as well, at hearing people reveal such thoughts publicly, at hearing certain words used in odd ways, and at how curious it makes us to hear more. The profuse discussion of scat and genitals is as reminiscent of great writers (Beckett and Genet come to mind right away) as it is of purely bawdy humor. At the premiere, the audience seemed constantly in a state of laughter, whether out of discomfort, surprise, schadenfreude, or just pure enjoyment.

The tentativeness innate to Catastrophic’s disclaimer, the uncertainty as to whether the play is something that people will actually enjoy, has another side to it as well — namely, the problem of how it should it be presented to such people. The strangeness of the script, the awkwardness of its conversations, comes across as something that would be incredibly difficult to effectively put on the stage. Nodler and the actors recognize that they were faced with this problem. Without straying from the script, they claim to have gone through dozens of radically different interpretations before finally settling into a version that seemed comfortable. As a director, Nodler says he would rather have his actors imagine how circumstances would have to change in their own lives to allow them to fit their roles rather than to create new characters from scratch. The ever-present hand of psychoanalysis in the play’s logic dovetails with this approach nicely, and though the different pieces of dialog do vary in their success, the actors have all adapted admirably to the difficult material, from the campy small-talk to the writhing-on-the-floor confessions. The characters don’t have personalities as much as they have idiosyncrasies, certain impulses they latch onto, that leave the audience with an eerie familiarity, a natural sympathy, and utter confusion as to how they live from the day to day. We come to know each of them through the way they react to, ingest, and regurgitate (literally) the conversations: the dry and studying eye of the academic doctor Grant (Jeff Miller), the youthful exuberance and vulnerability of Kristin (Karina Pal Montaño-Bowers), the pointed volatility of the reserved and older Samantha (Carolyn Houston Boone), the self-involved monologues of business traveler Tony (Kyle Sturdivant), and the eager and earnest inabilities of Jim (Troy Schulze).

The main couple, Lewis (Greg Dean) and Annette (Mikelle Johnson), the host and hostess of the party, bookend the play with scenes all to themselves. If the audience is left dumbfounded as to how the party-goers inhabit the real world, seeing the couple on their own in the low-lit, empty-feeling apartment, brings the answer closer to home — trying to understand someone else, living alongside them, is always difficult. These are the bleakest scenes of the play, full of an intense but unrealizable loneliness, passion mixed with distance and the extremity of emotion with the mundane. At one point, at the height of his anger, Lewis violently reaches for a sandwich and eats it. At another point, when the couple no longer seems able to breach the divide between them, Annette brings in a breakfast tray and pours two bowls of cereal. As the dialog takes an extended break and the two sit on the couch and munch their cornflakes together, a rare moment of understanding seems to take place. Even if we are not always able to communicate true feelings with one another, their are certain nodes in our behavior where differences seem to drift away — sharing food, for one, but given the rest of the play, the sentiment obviously extends to sex as well. It is a funny epiphany, one that, like the rest of the play, seems you can’t really take seriously but also know, somewhere beneath the complicated briars of human socialization, is based on honesty. Nodler believes the couple does love each other, that the difficulties are just that — difficulties — but he defers to a quote from Shawn himself: “The difficulty of saying ‘I love you’ is that it presupposes that you know who ‘I’ is and that you know who ‘you’ is.”