What is it with playwrights and puns? Elaborate, mind-bendingly cute puns — they just love ‘em. In Bekah Brunstetter’s new play Miss Lily Gets Boned the biggest, most playwritingest pun is eleven feet tall and requires three adult men to operate. That’s how big it is. And you know the secret of big puns? If they get big enough they turn into metaphors.
Miss Lilly (Jessica Dickey) is a good Christian lady living in New York City. She has a very whitebred job as a Sunday school teacher and a sister, Lara (Liz Wisan), who is a slutty spin instructor. Unlike her manic sister, Miss Lilly is a keeper of Christ’s vestal fire who has yet to feel sweetly thrilled by a human molle os rosea. She prays to God to send her a man who will both love her totally and love God totally, which is kind of a tall order, because if you love God totally you probably don’t have much room left in your heart for a girlfriend. And that is why Miss Lilly has yet to get boned.
Then God drops a giant elephant femur into Lilly’s lap. That’s not an obscure allusion on my end, that is, in fact, exactly what happens. (OK, for the too-literal-minded reader, a four foot long papier-mâché bone that we assume is an elephant femur is lowered from the ceiling on wires into Jessica Dickey’s lap. That is exactly what happens.) Meanwhile, at Sunday school Miss Lilly gets a new student, Jordan (David Rosenblatt) whose father Richard (Chris Thorn) is the man of Lilly’s prayers: he has a South African accent, he has proven he can commit to a woman and have kids, and he’s single because his wife was killed by an elephant.
Back in South Africa, Vandalla (Sanam Erfani) is an animal psychologist who is trying to get Harold the Elephant to open up to her and say why he attacked and (presumably) gored a woman. Harold (an eleven foot tall puppet played by Brian Belcinski, Adam Blodgett, and Aaron McDaniel), de-tusked and chained to the wall, doesn’t say much, making you wonder why his scenes with Vandalla seem more like an episode of Law and Order Animal Victims Unit than whimsical magical realism. Harold bats his long, sensitive eyelashes menacingly at Vandalla, while she tries to work on his emotions like Clarice Starling might work on one of Hannibal’s cavalry mounts.
Without giving away the plot, let the record show that Richard is a bonehead and Jordan is afraid of elephants on the rampage. Miss Lilly is sure to get her heart broken (after her boning, of course), and it turns out that Miss Lilly gives bone as good as she gets it when she goes on the rampage. Lara (whose scenes are some of the funniest and most touching in the play), for all her sophisticated, worldly sexuality, reveals deep female anxieties and desperation while leading a spin class. Pedalling furiously and barking encouragement to her imaginary lady pupils, you can see the helplessness and fury of a caged, wild animal in her eyes. The only way out of loneliness, she seems to say, is mania run amok.
We could just leave all these interesting and suggestive coincidences to resonate sweetly below the level of analytical thought, or we can try and pin down the meanings behind the metaphors. What exactly is the elephant? It’s a pun: the elephant in the room. But it’s a big pun, so as I said above, there is more flesh on that bone than meets the tooth. The elephant is male sexuality: cute and sensitive, with long, heart-melting eyelashes on the outside, on the inside it is a heart of darkness that is just as likely to return hate for love and use its stabbing facial bones to eviscerate the soft, yielding female body. The elephant is female sexuality: powerful and peaceful in nature, if provoked by man it metamorphoses from nourishing mother to Agave the murderous Bacchante. The elephant is a child’s midnight dread: the love of parents is not stable and comforting; it is, rather, animal and sexual, a force of nature that cares not whether it creates or destroys.
But in the last analysis the elephant is just a suggestive puppet. And that is the elephant in the room.