Reviewed by G.L. Horton
Phyllis Ngy's "Weldon Rising", at the Coyote Theatre, is the kind of piece most theatre people recognize as "cutting edge". It is more of a tone poem on the theme of the consequences of inaction than a drama in the Aristotelian sense . There is no plot, and the characters are so alienated that they have no real connections, no interactions that advance or change their relationships with each other. The setting is both very specific: "Little West 12th Street, New York City's meat-packing district"-- and fluid enough that interior and exterior scenes occur simultaneously, along with asides and soliloquies that can only be thought of as mental processes that are overheard by the audience.
The script makes huge demands, challenging its actors and director to discover or invent a rhythmic line and internal dynamics to replace the conflicts and suspense of traditional drama, and requiring that its staging climax with an epiphanic transfiguration in which Weldon and the rest "rise" to another plane. But the payoff is that it is nothing like what you can sit at home and tune in to during Prime Time. It is theatre, all right. Essential theatre.
Director Steve Maler and his cast at Coyote have met this challenge, and while the performance is a tad short of delivering the life-altering catharsis the script's poetry implies, they deliver an admirable and absorbing evening.
The most prominent pieces of the collage involve Natty Weldon, (Peter Bubriski) an aging sales clerk who lives closeted on the lower West Side. He has cherished his long-term lover, Jimmy, (Josh Karch) now dead. But even when Jimmy was alive Natty was isolated, cut off from the community: from the straight world by his hidden sexual identity, from the gay scene by his retiring temperament. "I'm not good looking enough to have gay friends.", Natty complains.
Natty can't dance, he's no longer young -- no, he was never young, not in that way-- and as for looks, he "could be beautiful", but only under the rarest of circumstances. Natty, wearing only a pair of boxer shorts and a black wool beret, primps in a parody of narcissism at a cosmetic-loaded vanity table located stage right of the main playing area of a trash-strewn alley, going off into an extended Ngy aria on the circumstances or locations wherein he was or could be "beautiful".
From there Natty segues into a rapturous description of how and when he and Jimmy met, how they courted and loved: "Your body was a testament to youth and so was mine in my half-assed way." Then he recounts how the pair of them were accosted by a young punk (Andrew Amondson) who knifed Jimmy to death in the alley, while cowardly Natty ran away and left his lover to bleed to death on a heap of garbage. "The sky split open, the temperature rose, and nothing's been the same since".
Interspersed with this are glimpses of a lesbian couple, Jaye (Siobhan Brown and Tilly (N.Rose Liberace, whose apartment overlooks the alley where Jimmy died. They, too, saw the stabbing and did nothing, except dial 911. They had seen Jimmy and Natty in the neighborhood, they knew that Jimmy was "one of them", and murdered because of it, yet they stayed inside and let his life drain away without the comfort of a human voice or hand. Because they were afraid. For this couple, also, nothing has ever been the same.
The final, and most spectacular, character is Marcel, a black leather miniskirted drag queen/homeless person who haunts the West Side Highway, accosting potential tricks and referring to him/herself in the third person. D'metrius Conley-Williams has a ball with this character, ripping into the dishy lines, but ripping the heart out of the audience, too.
These characters circle each other and the event, clash, back away, retreat, brood, distract: while at intervals a radio voice announces that the hottest day in history is growing hotter still, the temperature shooting up past 140 degrees to the point where everything must boil or melt. This effect, plus the sound score by J. Hagenbuckle, and the lighting design by John Malinowski-- which includes cars and trucks approaching, slowing, stopping, speeding away--- is brilliantly done. Every aspect of Ngy's script, in fact, has been the focus of loving, artistic attention.
Although she is an American, and has been more than commonly successful in her native land, Ngy has relocated to England where the terms of "success" for playwrights whose names are not household words are much more generous. Last summer I saw her "The Strip" at the Royal Court Theatre, where she was playwright-in-residence. A large cast of brilliant actors, many of them familiar from movies or PBS' Masterpiece or Mystery! displayed their amazingly accurate regional American accents, while the designers spared no effort to put Ngy's Las Vegas fantasia on stage. The Royal Court actors weren't as successful as Coyote at engaging the audience's complicity in Ngy's vision, but their effort was impressive. Then, as now, I was flooded with envy and frustration. Ngy is undeniably talented, but there are a half-dozen writers in the Boston area every bit as talented, whose works would shine if the same kind of skill and care was lavished upon them. Why does America leave it up to Britain to nurture our culture?