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To Practice These Principles in All Our Affairs

The strengths of the new play at the Studio Theatre aren’t where the playwright seems to think they are.

The play’s boundary-pushing profanity (I’m using circumlocutions to keep from saying the title, which the local alt-weeklies have been studiously printing in an attempt to prove we’re not provincial) is probably supposed to be raw and streetwise but comes across as mannered and stagey.

And the play appears to be about the complexity of character. “Funny how a person can be more than one thing,” the protagonist says, and each character has his or her duplicities revealed one by one. But heroes and villains do emerge: Two of the men are basically sincerely seeking to do the right thing despite their defects of character, while the third is a howling black hole of nihilistic misery, a pure villain. (The women are genuinely more ambiguous, less dedicated and directed.)

The play starts when Jackie, a newly-sober parolee, comes home to celebrate his new job with his high school sweetheart Veronica. Things are about to get steamy when he sees a man’s hat under a table. Whose fucking hat? etc. Events spiral from there, as Jackie seeks help from his sponsor and his cousin, and he and Veronica lie and rationalize and yell and cuss. Infidelity is exposed, blows are struck, guns are waved.

There are some really funny moments in this play. Jackie’s harassed, self-justifying, whiny, but ultimately humbled prayer with his sponsor is a great and recognizable moment. (It swerves into sentiment at the end–this play often holds scenes or moments too long, and gets sentimental–but it’s really good up to that point.) I think my favorite bit may have been when Jackie attempts to explain that physically yes, he did sleep with another girl, but in his heart it never happened! Stephen Adly Guirgis, the playwright, has great antennae for the ways we rationalize.

Rationalization may even be the real theme of the play. Its greatest strengths are its ability to show what it feels like to be constantly in the wrong–when everything you say gets the response, “No, because you’re on parole” or “No, because she’s an addict,” things which are true and relevant but maybe not always the most relevant or kindest things to say–and the lengths we’ll go to in order to feel like we’re in the right. Another great moment occurs when the villain is confronted by the two heroes, who wish to make him pay for his misdeeds. It’s obvious that they know what he did. And yet he tries to act like he’s completely confused, what’s this all about? Nobody’s watching this confrontation. He has no particular reason to front; he gains no advantage from it. But he has a compulsive need to occupy the moral high ground. And it’s that need–that rejection of the humiliation which provokes humility–which makes him a villain.

About Eve Tushnet

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