Deb Margolin’s Time is the Mercy of Eternity

Deb Margolin takes her title and her impulse for this set of four brief plays from a poem by William Blake. I saw the production May 9th, at the West End Theatre in New York, a third floor walk-up space perfectly intimate and appropriate to the sentiments of the evening. The four pieces read like short stories interconnected by themes of loss, grief, violence, and death. Margolin’s language, always so rewarding and exciting to experience at the theatre, is typically rich, allusive, and elliptical here. Her narratives drop the audience into the middle of stories that don’t necessarily need a beginning, middle, or end, because what we experience in their telling is the vitality of a moment in which something is observed, the clarity of a slice of time that captures something keen and unforgettable, something that might otherwise be forever lost.

Margolin’s sense of time works like that—she demonstrates, through her writing, that life is really an accumulation of moments that we can never retrieve, that we can only try to remember through association, through language, through feelings that are always undependable but necessary, nonetheless, to fleshing out our memories.

Margolin calls this evening “a quartet of pieces for a quartet of actors” who are multiply cast across each playlet. “The multiple casting,” she says in the published script, “is designed as a kind of human poetry, casting light on the imbricated conceits and thematic unity of the multiple pieces.”

The first piece, When They Quiet Down I Start, is masterfully performed by Curzon Dobell. He presents the intense monologue directly to the spectators, who serve as witnesses to the posthumous confessions of a man who was a suicide bomber in some unnamed location (leaving us free to imagine him anywhere in the Middle East, from Israel to Iraq). He’s now the bus driver, he tells us, the ferryman crossing the River Styx to carry the souls of the newly dead into heaven/eternity.

Dobell’s performance is precise and compelling, his wiry body tense with focus yet conversational, almost colloquial in his delivery if not in his language. He pulls us into his disquisition about the ridiculousness of suicide bombers’ actions and desires, scoffing at the notion that 72 virgins constitute adequate motivation for mass murder.

Instead, the bus driver says he was convinced to join the self-destructive ranks of suicide terrorists not for the rewards his initiators tell him will be his in the next life, but for how pulling the string on his jerry rigged device of self-immolation will make everything stop, will arrest a life that’s become too chaotic and emotionally over-stimulated.

Margolin writes chilling images that in Dobell’s delivery capture their macabre appropriateness. He describes bodies that look wrong, because they’re new to being dead and don’t quite know how to do it yet. He describes faces frozen in death masks, covering bereft souls weeping with loss as he ferries them to his world.

He describes his own moment of destruction, when he approached a crowded train station and watched as people moved down the tracks toward a train that stopped farther away from him than he expected. Only after they’ve cleared his portion of the platform does he pull the string that sets off his bomb, killing himself but not, he implies, many others.

Throughout When They Quiet Down I Start, a second actor wearing the white cassock of a priest stands with his back turned to the audience, appearing to pray. The bus driver refers to him occasionally, glancing at his glowering back for a response, somehow wordlessly rejecting the solace of his presumed prayer.

The small stage is decorated by an overturned table, its legs extended into the air, with two upended chairs resting on its underside, and a large steamer trunk set vertically, against which the bus driver leans and on which he places his blue-and-white paper coffee cup.

A video plays overhead, projected against a set of very large steel doors. Images of train tracks and women splatter and fragment across the screen, illustrating the chaos and inchoate sensations of a man walking knowingly toward his own death. The design’s cumulative effect creates the aura of noisy quietude, the force of its contradictions compelling us to witness the stories that unfold within.

The monologue imagines the emotional interior of a man who’s by no means a martyr, but someone unhappy for other reasons, who sees his carefully choreographed murderous act as a way to address his own psychosis and despair. By making it personal instead of political, Margolin’s writing somehow humanizes these terrorist acts. She puts a specific face on the action and lets us imagine that these destructive choices are made by particular people with real histories, whose brief lives brought them to this moment for individual, more than political, reasons. Margolin and Dobell deftly remind us that human actions exceed ideology.

In Clarrise and Larmon, the second piece, Lisa Kron plays the mother of a boy who’s been killed, senselessly, in war. In the play’s opening moment, a soldier gives her and her husband a photograph of their son’s remains: his knee, calf, ankle, and foot. Clarisse questions the reporting soldier’s language of fear. In answer to her questions, he says, “I’m afraid so,” or “I’m afraid not,” or “I’m afraid it would have been . . .” and other declarations of timid hesitation. “Why are you so afraid of everything?” she asks impertinently and honestly. He can’t understand her challenge to the banal language we use to inform people of the most awful truths.

Kron and Dobell—making a quick emotional transition into the husband’s role from the terrorist he plays in the first piece—play wife/husband mother/father in the intimate yet formal way that typifies Margolin’s work. Their language is too perfect, too writerly to be real, but at the same time, that bit of artifice helps heighten our understanding of the emotional magnitude of their feelings.

The play’s most wrenching image is the last, when Clarisse rips the photograph of her son’s leg into bits, crying that the boy needs to go back where he came from, and tries to shove his image back into her womb. The pain of loss and the impossibility of retrieval become achingly clear.

The third play, The Rich Silk of It, is dedicated to the memory of Lyric Benson, a Yale acting student who was murdered by her ex-boyfriend/fiancé. Her death devastated the Yale community of which Deb, who teaches playwrighting and acting and other courses at the university, was a part. The piece imagines the final three seconds of Lyric’s life, as she stands on the stoop of her apartment building, trying to persuade her psychotic ex not to kill her.

She recalls happier moments from their shared past; she tells him he wouldn’t want her mother to find her body on the stoop, as what mother should be forced to discover the body of her child? She talks non-stop to him and to us, as the light focuses our attention on her face and her assassin’s inscrutable back.

The piece is perhaps the evening’s most ambitious, partly because Margolin attempts to tell so much of the back-story of this last tragic moment. In the other three pieces, she spins out a rich web of allusions and connections that comprise one particular moment of eternity. But in Rich Silk, she looks for answers in a larger network of time, in a series of moments that culminate in Benson’s murder.

The piece dislodges chronological time, flashing forward and back across the moments that brought the young woman and the deranged man to the moment of her death. Yet where the evening’s three other plays are tinged with irony and absurdism, The Rich Silk of It plays earnestly and realistically, generating the expectation that the story will provide motivations and reveal the secrets that realism leads us to anticipate. Instead of the swift slice of intersectional, slightly skewed reality that the other pieces provide, this one is more teleological, looking for answers that really can’t be found.

While the slain student (played by Claire Siebers) is a unified, clearly delineated character, her murderer—played by Khris Lewin, a visually arresting, muscular, small, bald, white man—changes personae frequently. Lewin portrays the very troubled boyfriend in one moment, a dubious gay bartender the next, and an anonymous man whom the boyfriend also accosts the next.

Although this instantaneous multiple casting underlines the boyfriend’s chaotic subjectivity, it also lessens the frightening effect of his insanity. The play intercuts his moments of pure psychosis with more sober reflections by the other characters Lewin plays, breaking the terrible momentum of his drive to murder the woman.

We observe the boyfriend’s possessive rages, his expressed desire to cut the woman into little pieces the better to devour her. We hear the bartender’s cautions, his sense that something’s not right with the man the young woman intends to marry. We see her visit a priest, concerned that she can’t seem to bring her fiancé to god. And we watch uncomfortably as he performs his desire to possess her emotionally, physically, and sexually.

Because the piece is more realistic, we expect explanations. Our desires, though, are finally foiled; what answers can be found in the act of a madman? The image of a woman talking against the silhouette of a man holding a gun on her is compelling, but clouded by the back and forth of time. Leaving her suspended in that one awful moment, those three seconds before she’s hurried to eternity before her time, might have been a powerful enough choice.

In the eponymous last piece, Kron returns to play “Woman in Bed,” who’s revealed as stage-hands open those large steel doors and push a full, tastefully decorated bed out onto the stage. It turns out she’s lolling, fully dressed, on a store display, calling for the attention of “Woman in Blazer,” an officious saleswoman who tries to cajole her out of her bedding back into the proper reality of the department store.

Although her motivations are never quite clear, the Woman in Bed feverishly describes her desire to talk to the Woman in Blazer, finally seducing her into the bed to frolic among the sheets and covers. The brief scene ends in a passionate, unexpected kiss, providing a moment of humor and happiness, however inexplicable, that ends the evening.

Margolin’s writing and the actors’ embodiments provide the evening’s rich satisfactions. The direction, however, is a bit too ham-fisted for such delicate, intricate writing and ideas. Although in his program note, director Marc Stuart Weitz seems to understand Margolin’s intent, he freights the four pieces with cumbersome weight.

Weitz envisions these scenes with too much stuff and too many extraneous people come on between the plays to move décor on and off. These intersessions let us detach and rest, when we should be moved inexorably through each of these short pieces to feel their cumulative effect.

Ultimately, they all tell one story of loss, death, yearning, and finally, hope. Their collective impact might be better served by a directorial hand able to highlight the writing through simple, crystalline images, instead of filling the stage with actions and things that distract from the pure impact of Margolin’s words and the actors who say them and feel them so well.

The Feminist Spectator

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