We've all heard that the pen is mightier than the sword. But when is the last time you saw a play in which a pen was a vital central character?
One tiny writing instrument's power to wreak havoc on human hearts, minds, and especially bodies is overstated to grandly campy extremes in Pen, David Marshall Grant's new play at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater. In the course of two hours, this ink-bearing marvel cures and bestows multiple sclerosis, heals the wounds left by a dissolved marriage, and fosters independence for a young man who's always lived life under his mother's thumb. Oh yes, and it also writes upside-down.
It was originally designed for the space program, you see, but now that Christmas 1969 is approaching, it's no longer manufactured. That leaves its owner, Helen (J. Smith-Cameron), in quite a spot: She's got enough refills to last her 12 years, so that she may continue to do crossword puzzles lying on her back. Long confined to a wheelchair because of MS, she's filled that red-metal pen not with black ink or blue ink, but with all her dreams for a more interesting future.
When she loses it, as happens soon after the play begins, all her hopes vanish, too. What remains is her son, Matt (Dan McCabe), whom she wants to attend a local New York college after he graduates high school in the spring, and her ex-husband Jerry (Reed Birney), who's about to remarry and is covertly helping Matt apply to a California university.
Add additional concerns about politics (Helen is a radical, Matt and Jerry are slightly more conservative), the law (Matt was caught shoplifting), and identity (Helen is afraid of cameras, and has hidden all images of her former self), and you have the tangled web that Grant has created for three people who can barely express important truths to themselves, let alone each other. As long as Grant sticks to these concerns, he's capable of writing a watchable human drama about the fragile dynamics of fractured families.
But when he gets adventurous, watch out. When a piece of lettuce shreds Matt's esophagus during dinner with his father, the reality of Grant's world starts cracking. And at the end of the first act, when that pesky pen - which Matt finds and steals, as a way of getting back at his moribund mother - magically lets Helen walk as it robs Matt of the use of his legs, common sense irreparably shatters.
Both Grant and his director, Will Frears, don't attempt to mask this heavy-handed symbolism, and so highlight the unexpectedly mystical nature of these events that you can't just accept them as fixtures of the play's universe. The staunchly realistic atmosphere, so evident in Frears's tense staging and Robin Vest's '60s-mod set, keeps these moments from feeling in any way integrated: The effects of all this weirdness cascade through the second act until it's all but impossible to remember the play's initial promise.
Yet even after the avalanche starts, there are moments of clarity in the performances: The first scene of the second act, in which the now-mobile Helen, masquerading as a blonde, meets her husband in the gin joint where they first met, is awash with compelling subtext, and is lightly, tightly written. The joy of a reestablished intimate connection and the regret for lost time resonate loudly in Birney and Smith-Cameron as Jerry and Helen rediscover why they once loved each other: You feel in this scene, more strongly than anywhere else, the uncertainty and longing that the play is truly about.
The acting is otherwise uneven: Birney is generally fairly one-note and monotone, overplaying the "disaffected father" stereotype, and McCabe is usually too often the angry-but-responsible son. But Smith-Cameron is her usual well-judged, steely self, creating a woman who lives every day of her life in some kind of pain, and who can only be freed of it at a cost she'd rather not pay. Her every word and glance makes you understand what she's lost in her life and what it all means to her.
That's why it's so depressing that Grant felt it necessary to make a physical object such a visible focus of her life. It dilutes the actor's art, forcing the ever-intelligent and resourceful Smith-Cameron to receive second billing in a show in which she should reign supreme. As it is, she comes close, because no amount of plot ridiculousness can completely extinguish her uniquely theatrical fire.
But all that fuss about the pen feels like much ado about nothing. Grant might be better off investigating pens that dispense red ink, which, if applied to Pen, might result in a more coherent play than the one he's already expended far too much ink on.