Heroes of the Strange – New York Theater

Lots of bristles at the inscription “Special Needs”. He is a recluse and a self-taught artist who composed a song called “Weird” and collects trash to turn into sculptures. Yes, he says, he is not what he calls a styrofoam person: “Styrofoam people are allowed want Things. And if you’re special, you should just do it to need Things.”

Lot shares his views with Ginny, who has Down Syndrome, in Corsicana, Will Arbery’s new play about four characters living in the small Texas town of the play’s title. Each of them has something special wants.

In a note on the program of Corsicana, which runs on Playwrights Horizons through July 10, the playwright tells us he was inspired to write Corsicana because he’s always written about his relationship with his older sister, Julia wanted Arbery, who has Down Syndrome – like the character Ginny and like the actress portraying Ginny, Jamie Brewer. At the same time, the playwright didn’t want to make his sister a pitiable or admired archetype, and didn’t want to make “Corsicana” a themed play. The solution he seems to have landed on is to add two more characters and give all four more or less equal weight. The result is the slow unfolding of some vibrant, weird, complicated characters brought to life by an extraordinary cast, including Dierdre O’Connell, who finally got the recognition she deserved when she won the Tony Award for Lead Actress in a Play last week . But Arbery’s approach creates some other challenges.

Christopher (Will Dagger), an aspiring filmmaker in his 30s who is currently teaching at the local community college, lives with his older sister Ginny (Jamie Brewer), who has been in despair since her mother died a few months earlier. Her mother’s best friend, a librarian named Justice (Dierdre O’Connell), suggests that Ginny, who loves music, could meet Lot and write a song together. Justice thinks it could be good for both of them; Lot opened up a bit recently, allowing Justice to arrange for a journalist to write about his artworks in a prestigious magazine. He still doesn’t have a phone, but at least he doesn’t always keep the front gate closed now. Justice urges Christopher to pitch.

Lot (Harold Surratt) is cautious and difficult. It takes Lot a long time for Lot to even understand what Christopher is proposing and even longer to agree after Christopher has worked hard not to offend him and be persuasive. He suggests that he and Ginny could meet up on Mondays first.

Lot agrees. “Damn – now I need to start knowing what day it is Monday… I need to get a ‘calendar or something.’

The scene is mildly amusing, and it fits in as Ginny and Lot finally meet face to face. They just stare at each other for the longest moment. It’s funny, but it also feels real.

“Corsicana” is less about what’s happening; more about what we learn about the characters. Ginny’s taste in music is very different from Lot’s, as is her general outlook on life. But they also share more than they know. Neither Ginny nor Lot are easy. Ginny is blunt and says things that aren’t always true. Lot is suspicious and has panic attacks. Surratt’s physical discomfort is captivating and compelling. They both speak in non-sequiturs, but this is not the playwright’s foray into absurdism; it feels like his insight into the way these authentic characters would speak.

A lot of it is beautiful. However, Arbery isn’t content to drive home that individuals who are routinely dismissed as odd have the same wants and desires as everyone else. He also wants to drive home how weird the other two people are in the play itself. Justice sees dead people, some of whom she knows – like Christopher’s and Ginny’s mother – others she can’t quite place. Christopher has a lengthy monologue about his father near the end of the play, centering on a long-lost letter he wrote as a teenager that magically appeared and then vanished just as quickly; he believes it was delivered and removed by an angel in the person of a postal worker.

I think I understand Arbery’s point. But I wish I had that patience for the 150 minutes (intermission included) of “Corsciana” – with its lengthy monologues and discursive two-character scenes (in which the characters are just as likely to pay off about the purpose of the art, the nature of grief and the importance of community to tell a suspicious ghost story) – as I did for his 2019 play Heroes of the Fourth Turning. Again, this track was character driven (and two hours non-stop). One difference is structural: “Heroes” all happened in a single night of a reunion, which made the monologues seem more focused (they caught up, eventually.) That’s not to say that “Corsicana” isn’t happening. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to suggest that after many starts and stops, Ginny and Lot are working on a song (actually co-written by Arbery and Joanna Sternberg).

“Corsicana” is directed by Sam Gold, who, among his many talents, is nowadays the ideal director for strange interpretations. Although Lot’s outsider art is said to be dazzling, we see none of that. Laura Jellinek and Cate McCrea’s set is deliberately spare and drab – a few pieces of furniture, a turntable, a blank wall. The design offers more meaning than appeal. Occasionally, the Actosr will manually spin the turntable, an action that literally gives us new perspectives and is perhaps meant to encourage metaphorically seeing the characters from different angles. They also occasionally loosen a corner of the backdrop. Those brief moments in which the actors act like stagehands may subtly reinforce the notion that the characters they portray are attempting to gain control of their environment—an environment they dismissed as odd

When I saw “Corsicana” I was immediately struck by how often the characters describe themselves as weird or crazy. O’Connell had already started work on the play when she accepted her Tony earlier this month. Was it just a coincidence that she said:

“I’d love for that little award to be a sign for anyone who’s wondering, ‘Should I try to do something that might work on Broadway or that might get me a Tony Award, or should I do this weird art ? haunts me, it scares me that I don’t know how to do it, that I don’t know if anyone in the whole world will understand? Please let me, standing here, be a little sign from the universe for you to make this strange art.”

corsica
At Playwrights Horizons until July 10th
The running time is approximately 2:30 including an intermission
Tickets: $59-$79
Written by Will Arbery
DDirected by Sam Gold.
Scenic Design by Laura Jellinek, Costume Design by Qween Jean, Lighting Design by Isabella Byrd, Sound Design by Justin Ellington, Composer Joanna Sternberg (
Cast: Jamie Brewer, Will Dagger, Deirdre O’Connell, Harold Surratt

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