Theater Review: Will Arbery’s “Corsicana”

By Will Arberys corsica, at Playwright’s Horizons.
Photo: Julieta Cervantes

The last time Will Arbery named a play after a Texas town he was writing plan, the slippiest, strangest little snake of them all, one that coiled around its own chronology and hissed when nudged. One character was a faceless man who could have been several men prowling around a porch while three sisters (based on three of Arbery’s own) discussed their own family’s history of supernatural events. Then I think you married the faceless man? I’ve seen and read it twice, but Plano intentionally thwarts your memories and makes you your own unreliable narrator.

I mention Plano because corsica (now at Playwrights Horizons) is the twin and mirror image of this piece. Arbery has returned to a desaturated Texas environment with the same sense of psychological displacement; again he writes about his own sister (albeit a different one) and to some degree his own mind. The autobiography in both adds secret depth and baggage, even if other parts seem wild. But where the witch Plano was exquisitely integrated throughout, all the more realistic corsica seems to contradict itself. After a perfect first hour, some late game changes seem almost unedited, with monologues tearing apart the carefully thought out preceding act. I’m still grateful that where Plano slinking away from my conscious attention, this piece – serious, lopsided, occasionally beautiful – chooses to stay and stay.

corsica is dedicated to Julia, Arbery’s older sister who has Down Syndrome. “I’ve always wanted to do a play about what it’s like to be her brother,” he says in the programme, which celebrates her uninhibited musicality and, above all, her privacy. What happens behind her door is beyond him, and his note is cautious about revealing his own feelings towards her, let alone opening a door she wishes to close.

This underlying ambivalence about writing plays themselves informs Will Dagger’s performance as Christopher, the play’s Arbery avatar. In the show’s great early scenes, Christopher restrains himself when his 34-year-old sister Ginny (Jamie Brewer) calls him lazy, but he also flops boneless on a couch for most of his conversations with her; he is dependent on her and at the same time her caregiver, which makes it difficult to deal with the grief after the mother’s death. A neighbor and dear friend, Justice (Deirdre O’Connell), helps out with things like grocery shopping and babysitting (“I’M AN ADULT,” says Ginny, if anyone can hear you call it that), but you can still sense the loving little things Fray family from fabric into threads.

Vocally they are an orchestra, well conducted by director Sam Gold. Dagger has a wonderfully fun, plaintive tone (he manages to wail without speaking while resetting a router), and his odd, syncopated rhythms work well as a counterpoint to O’Connell’s insistent, kindly contralto. O’Connell is also one of our biggest listeners on stage, and her serious silence when others speak becomes one of the most important sounds of the production. Ginny speaks in rhythm like a poet – Brewer pauses to smile between each lyrical sentence, as if marking the end of a line. “The best thing about being a woman with Down syndrome is being smart and doing a lot of special things for people,” she says. “And I’m sensitive. My heart is like this pipe dream about things. The best thing about my heart is that I can talk to anyone.”

Ginny really can Talk to everyone, including Lot (Harold Surratt), an outsider artist working on a massive, invisible piece he’s creating as a “one-way street to God.” Christopher hopes Lot can teach Ginny to write her feelings as a song, but it seems a doomed project: Lot and Ginny can talk, but they agree on very little, especially when she tries to break her crush on him and to tell pop music.

Where they connect is with their experience of others, or rather with being different. This is Lot describing how he and Ginny are reduced to people who to need things rather than want She:

And then someone like me comes along. Or someone like you comes by. complicated people. layered people. Granite. Basalt. Obsidian people. We’re so complicated that people don’t want to think about it. So you make us easier. In their brains. They don’t think about it and just call us. And everything revolves around our needs. All our little needs.

First, Arbery skillfully plays the four characters like cards, shuffling them according to their, well, needs. His writing here is exquisitely judged and special, yet always rings on the same tuning fork just out of earshot. Every conversation is dejected and haphazard; the days seem too hot, too endless to come to a point. Characters need to know that others love them, but their attendant demands – respect, caring, freedom, loneliness – throw any relationship off balance. Ginny’s hard-headed affection throws Lot’s tense emotional stasis into a flat spin, morphing into Justice, which lashes wide at Christopher. Just as all those intricate pieces are spinning and moving, Arbery loses control. And when a writer gets nervous, the monologues start.

First, he has Christopher deliver a fantastic, headlined shaggy story that should end the play. Then he writes a monologue for justice, a runny, rambling, almost unspeakable treatise on love. (Justice describes her parents’ marriage as “triage and so many mazes it almost becomes an optical illusion”. Who says “to make it”?) Then there’s one for Lot, which involves way too much explanation and confession contains and breaks Lot’s own laconic mystery. Arbery is too subtle an author to end a play with a speech, “Let me explain my painful background so you’ll understand,” but here’s one. I kept thinking that the play needs to respect Justice and Lot’s “closed doors” like Arbery respects Ginny/Julia’s and even Chris/his own.

Gold production makes up for this lack of restraint with ruthless frugality. He and set designers Laura Jellinek and Cate McCrea transformed the stage into a giant white-walled warehouse where characters wait to enter the scenes, leaning against and behind pillars. To add color (almost always a faint glow), Isabella Byrd’s lighting filters through the translucent plastic scaled roof, a huge structure spanning the proscenium that also partially extends over the audience. Ginny’s overstuffed brown sofa is doubled, and a turntable rotates every sofa in sight, allowing the team to change the time of a scene (now it’s later since someone else is sitting on the sofa) rather than the location. It’s a somber place, but impressive: the dirty-beige floor and plastic roof suggest an archaeological dig, where the playwright and company carefully excavate the arberyscape.

Of course, The Elephant in the Theater is not our memory of Arbery’s last play Plano but Heroes of the Fourth Turn, which was a galactic success, was shortlisted for a Pulitzer Prize and was one of the most important theater works of the past decade. (Imagine not being crushed by an elephant the Size.) Turn‘s effortless sequencing of conversations contained lengthy arias on theology and conservative orthodoxy that bothered neither audiences nor critics, much less in the way the “monologues” of the final pieces here bother me. So it’s not the language or the length that has disappointed me, but the significant, occasional weakness in the language of this piece, its inconsistencies in register, meter and meter. Luckily, there’s the production itself, which offers some sort of foundation beneath sometimes shaky lyrics. At the end of corsica, everyone stops talking and singing. It’s a poignant moment, one that Arbery and Gold and their fabulous cast judged for the precise emotional boost. Each sings his own verse, sitting on the brown floor; Everyone has a moment under the dim yellow light.

corsica is at Playwrights Horizons until July 10th.

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