Kitchen-sink realism is dead.
A century of exploring “small” lives lived in small spaces has yielded some masterworks, from Williams’ Streetcar and Miller’s Salesman to August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, and many more. But in the 21st century, English-language theatre has moved away from realism.
Yet LA playwright Robert Riemer — who’s certainly made some out-there explorations into fantasy and myth — seems to want to bring along the kitchen sink, too. His latest offering, Grace Note, evokes a realm we might call “kitchen-sink surrealism.”
Lights rise to reveal an almost tediously familiar setting: a dreary urban apartment. (Made subtly powerful by scenic designer Eric Rodriguez’ use of 12-foot beams to frame the space). It’s inhabited by the fragments of a family, a blustering father and his timid son. And the ghost of the boy’s mother, whom only the father can see.
Into the scene come the boy’s homeless older brother, who’s an even more full-blown schizophrenic than Dad, and a neighbor wielding a wheelchair who rolls in every night and falls asleep in the kitchen. Everybody drinks booze or beer constantly (Is the water that bad in New York?), and everybody argues.
Their brawling reveals a sordid family history, which has caused the deaths of all three females — Mom, the youthful Lauren, and her baby. Their ghosts watch, like indulgent fates, while the so-called men battle over whom the three belonged to.
Grace Note’s concerns echo those in Riemer’s recent works (the pseudo-Biblical nightmare Whore’s Bath, the Appalachian fable Dummies). Foremost is his fiery hatred for the patriarchy: Like an Old Testament prophet, Riemer depicts male-dominated culture as a way of death that destroys every life within it.
He clearly has empathy for the people crushed in its gears — even the hapless and ill-equipped males, who imagine it’s a man’s world. But empathy won’t save the day, nor will these staggering wrecks become the family they fantasize. Riemer doesn’t even let survival of the species emerge from the rubble. Humanity has blown its chance, it seems, and won’t likely get a second one.
Riemer’s writing style — which he has described as “yelling and screaming” — makes serious demands on the performers. Director Sebastian Muñoz has managed to harness the intersecting realities and colliding energies into a coherent, comprehensible story with a consistent, slightly elegiac tone. This is no mean feat (and Muñoz is no average director).
As for the actors, well, the women do amazingly much with very little. Courtney Drumm creates both Lauren (the easily omitted “grace note” of the title) and her baby out of scraps of cloth and a few lines, while Jennifer Novak Chun weaves the nearly silent Mom (who almost never leaves the stage) from gentle looks, gestures, and the actor’s gold: reactions.
Ian Heath grabs our sympathy with his guileless awkwardness as Michael, the introverted postman the others see as “normal”; and Tyler Koster ranges from cowering fear to towering rage, visiting several planets in between, as the never-to-return prodigal Chris. Roger Weiss also offers a nicely occluded bitterness as the old pal who hides a grudge the size of Long Island.
But the palm goes to Paul Thomas Arnold as Dad, the drunk and deluded alpha male who unwittingly destroys everything he tries to touch. Arnold somehow contains Dad’s roaring rages, his paranoid seizures, and his tremulous tendrils of feeling in the flesh of a whole, real person. For all the wreckage in his wake, we see the utterly unprepared, confused fellow trying to hide behind the curtain.
Riemer is not an easy playwright to perform, nor to appreciate. His prophetic rants can wander into obscurity — but not in the hands of Muñoz and his cast. Their outstanding work makes Grace Note seem worthy to set alongside plays by Sam Shepard and Harold Pinter.
Let’s hope for a longer run in LA soon.
Grace Note, by Robert Riemer, directed by Sebastian Muñoz.
Presented by the OC-Centric New Play Festival, at Chapman University.