Friday, February 25, 2011

Off Broadway: Paraffin (Part 2 of The Hallway Trilogy)

In Rose, Part 1 of The Hallway Trilogy, we were introduced to the residents of a tenement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan (and assorted other neighborhood characters) in 1953 on the day following the death of the playwright, Eugene O’Neill: Rose, who believed O’Neill to still be alive and in hiding; Richard B., her husband; Mary and her sister, Megan; the building superintendant, who shared the playwright’s name; Jerry, a Princeton graduate; Orest, a Russian immigrant and his enormously obese (unseen) mother; Marbles, a somersaulting busker-clown-henchman; and Louis Zap, a seeming Mafiosi. Basically, he play disclosed these characters’ personalities and the relationships among them, and the audience could chuckle at their antics or commiserate with them over their plights, while peeling away the layers of their personae in an attempt to better understand and interpret their psyches and the circumstances that brought them to their then-present states. And since the play was set in 1953, during the Eisenhower Years, at the beginning of the Cold War, back when the values of the Silent Generation prevailed, all of the characters on stage conducted themselves not only entertainingly but in a relatively genteel, congenial and civilized fashion.

Sex? Well, reference was made to Mary’s tryst with a “Spanish Mexican” which resulted in her broken engagement, and she did trade sexual favors with O’Neill in exchange for the rent (as evidenced by the cat hairs on the back of her sweater). But nothing occurred that would really steam up your glasses. Violence? A bit. Megan did slap Mary’s face when she realized how Mary had carried on with O’Neill and O’Neill did suffer a mild beating at the hands of Louis Zap for having attempted to hold out on the mob but O’Neill was packing for his Florida retirement within minutes after his beatdown, apparently suffering no serious aftereffects. Nudity? Yes, Mary did begin to unbutton her blouse as she entered O’Neill’s apartment. And that was it. In short, if this were a movie, it probably would have been rated PG.

All of which scarcely prepared me for what confronted me when I returned to the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater a few days later to attend a performance of Part 2 of The Hallway Trilogy: Paraffin. I had expected to see a play similar in style to Rose, only updated a bit to reflect some of the changes in technology and mores which had transpired in the 50 years between 2003 and 1953. But that was not to be.

In Paraffin, Rapp raises the stakes dramatically – indeed, I might say he goes all in – with a play that pulls no punches on sex, violence and nudity. If Rose were to be rated PG, Paraffin would be rated R or maybe even NC-17. In short, I wouldn’t take my kids to see this one and, if you’re somewhat squeamish yourself when it comes to scatological humor, sex, violence and nudity on the stage, maybe you’d best avoid it too.

By 2003, all of the tenement’s residents and neighborhood characters who we met in Rose are long gone and forgotten; only Rose herself even merits a mention in Paraffin. O’Neill, the tenement’s superintendent in 1953 presumably has retired to Florida (or perhaps gone on to an even higher reward) and his apartment is now occupied by Marty (Guy Boyd) and Lucas (Jeremy Strong). Marty is a drag queen and Lucas a heterosexual, wheelchair-bound, military casualty of the war in Afghanistan who rents a room in Marty’s apartment. Lucas is also the brother of Denny (William Apps), a drug addicted loser who lives with his pregnant wife Margo (Julianne Nicholson). Denny and Mary live in the apartment on the hall that had been unoccupied in 1953.

Kevin (Danny Mastrogiorgio), the building’s new superintendent, lives in the apartment occupied by Orest and his mother 50 years earlier. Ido (Robert Beitzel) and Rahel (Maria Dizzia), a young, married Israeli couple, live on an upstairs floor, presumably in the apartment previously occupied by the two sisters, Megan and Mary, in 1953. The other three characters in the play, who don’t live in the building but appear on the scene, are: Dena (Sue Jean Kim), Megan’s Eurasian friend; Leshik (Nick Lawson), a Polish messenger and henchman for the mob; and Cory (Stephen Tyrone Williams), Marty’s black lover.

The set for Paraffin is little changed from the set for Rose: the public telephone on the wall in 1953 is gone, no longer required in the cell phone culture of 2003. The apartment that had been blocked and unoccupied in 1953 is now home to Margo and Denny while the apartment Jerry occupied in 1953 is now closed off. The superintendant has been relocated from one apartment to another. And, oh yes, an unconscious, half naked Denny is sprawled out on the floor in front of his apartment.

And as the play progresses, we realize anew that no one is all of a piece.

Denny’s condition is a result of his drug addiction, he passes out, soils himself, steals, lies, is in flight from the mob and, indeed, is so far gone that Margo won’t allow him in the house. Yet she remains so ambivalent in her feelings that she still can’t bring herself to change the locks on the apartment door in order to shut him out of her life entirely. Indeed, she even assists him in cleaning himself up in a sophomorically scatological nude scene which the audience did seem to enjoy.

Lucas is almost sociopathic in his combativeness as a result of his physical handicap and sexual frustration, insulting, propositioning, offending and taunting both Rahel and her husband. He has long been in love with Margo who he ultimately seduces in a gritty sex scene in the hall. And he professes no attachment, feelings or friendship whatsoever for Marty. Yet, in fact, he ultimately exhibits more concern for Marty’s well being than does anyone else.

When the lights go out all over the city in the 2003 blackout, Rahel is missing and Ido is searching for her; Marty is seizing the opportunity to pick up a new gay lover and ultimately returns home with Cory; Danny is being pursued by Leshik who seeks to torture him to death in a manner described in such exquisitely sadistic detail that it would cause Quentin Tarantino to blanch. And Kevin, Lucas, Margo and Dena are assembling over candles and marijuana in the hallway.

Dena proposes a game in which everyone tells what one thing they would change in their life right then and there if they could and the disclosures range from the banal to the startling. Predictably, Kevin would sleep with Dena. But Dena’s answer to her own question might come as a bit of a surprise. And so might Margo’s. The play’s denouement occurs while the four are in the dark, in their state of bliss or denial, shut off from the rest of the world and, when it comes, it is sudden, shocking and violently theatrical.

Paraffin was directed by Daniel Aukin who did as good a job as Adam Rapp, himself, did in directing Rose. As already noted in our earlier review of Rose, the set, which is basically the same as that in Rose, appears simple (although it really took quite some doing to construct) but it is quite effective and works well. Every member of the cast again turns in a first rate performance, most noteworthy among them being William Apps as the drugged out Denny; Julianne Nicholson as his pregnant wife, Margo; Nick Lawson as the sadistic henchman Leshik; Guy Boyd as the drag queen Marty; and Jeremy Strong as the wheelchair-bound Lucas.

I’ll post my review of Nursing, the final play in the trilogy, tomorrow.

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