IT OR HER, a new play by Alena Smith being performed now at the FRIGID festival is a cross between Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” and Baron-Cohen’s “Brüno”. When that pitch line occurred to me in the darkened theater, I thought I was being pretty clever (if catty), but when I read the official blurb in the press packet I saw that the allusion was intentional. The playwright intentionally copped Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”, albeit in a cute, neo-absurdist way.
The scene is the protagonist Andrew’s basement. He has a large metal box in the center of the room, and at the beginning of the play he pulls out and arranges some score and upwards of female figurines – some of them are porcelain, and at least one is a pirouetting music box. His wife Nancy – a ball-busting shrew according to Andrew – is mysteriously missing. The only creatures who understand him are his figurines, but the red one is gone! It isn’t clear if the red one (“it?” “her?”) is a figurine, his wife, or both, and I’m 99 percent confident the confusion is intentional. Two thirds of the way through the action Andrew sees his reflection in the mirror and tells the audience he has seen his evil, gay twin brother, Alber, (French, I suppose, for Albert) who is a fashion designer with an “amanuensis” named Nancy. Then Mr. McManamon is metamorphosed into an over-the-top, fey Alber who continues to speak until Andrew reasserts himself ten minutes later. I am not giving too much away when I say Andrew and Poe’s narrator meets their ends in the same way.
Though the convention of having a deranged misanthrope narrate unreliably is hardly avant-garde (for example, Poe’s story was first published in 1843), the performance of IT OR HER was funny nonetheless — sometimes by design, sometimes in spite of itself. To give due credit, Mr. McManamon can act the spit out of a lovably loony misanthrope. Waves of laughter rippled across the audience when his voice ran through comic modulations of pitch and psychosis. And he got a lot of mileage out of pulling neurotically at his too-short long johns, worn as knickers, or what used to be called “short pants.” The set, though spare, couldn’t have been any better for the cramped, alien scene imagined by the playwright. And I got the feeling the direction was as close an interpretation of the true meaning of the text as possible. Certainly the opening night audience, which seemed evenly split between early 20-somethings and older parental types, laughed at all the antics.
Too much analysis would be the death of a nice entertainment like this one, so I won’t bore the reader with the meaning of Andrew’s obsessive, anal-retentive organization of the figurines (he’s looking for “the perfect arrangement”) and what that signifies about his repressed homosexuality or homicidal misogyny. If the up-and-coming theater fairy could grant me a wish, though, it would be to slow the play down a notch and cast someone who might be believably middle-aged and crazy. An attractive, thin, young man acting camp as a battalion of pink tents may be psycho (ahem, Michael Alig), but he’s psycho in a fun, effervescent glamorous way; not in a creepy John Wayne Gacy way. Fun, effervescent, and glamorous is definitely not a window into the unplumbed depths of the soul; it is rather an escape from the terror and angst of loneliness. If this play is a mirror of the existential dread that dwells within us all, it’s a Barbie mirror that only shows how beautifully tragic and glamorous a lost soul can be.
IT OR HER
The Red Room, 85 E. 4th Street
Part of the FRIGID festival