Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe
This family isn't so much dysfunctional as dynamited. Ex-Marine son Isaac (Michael Weppler) comes home after three years to find that Dad has had a stroke, sister Max is trans-ing into his brother Max, and Mom now rules their shrinking world.
But iron-fisted control doesn't look like gleaming countertops and starched corners. The stage set is a study in archaeology, as if layers of garbage, dirty laundry, and Dad sleeping under the kitchen table could be excavated for clues to what happened here. Isaac tries to understand. The answers he gets don't support his standards or float his boat. Too bad.
As mom Paige (Bridget Kelly) says, there's been a "paradigm shift" in the household, triggered by dad Arnold's (Blake Magnusson) stroke and an exploded anger over his years-long physical and verbal abuse of Paige and Max (Dachary Vann). To control him and take revenge, Paige refuses to clean and cook but blends Arnold's "slushy" drink with estrogen pills. When he moves toward the door for escape, she squirts him with a water bottle as one would a pet-in-training. She also dresses him in a nightgown, wigs and makeup, presumably as a send-up of his former masculine prerogative.
Working-class problems are at the base of their discontent, too. Literally. Their home is sited on a landfill leaking poison gas. Paige has had to sell the house and rent it back since Arnold lost his plumbing job. Isaac went into the Marines because he couldn't afford college and couldn't get a job. Max is being homeschooled by Paige, whose one semester at a community college is her only credential.
The pressures of the world-at-large keep the family in this diminished state, yet each member acts out in a singular way. Isaac has been dishonorably discharged for doing drugs (favored method: having a young woman blow it up his anus with a straw). Paige tortures Arnold by keeping the air conditioning ablast so he'll shiver in his cotton gown. Max wants to be referred to by the pronoun "hir," pronounced "here," as in "neither him nor her," giving the play its title.
As Isaac tries to restore his dad to masculinity by dressing him in a red flannel shirt (very funny, costumer Ampuero), Max bonds with his brother over Mom's oddities. The actors are an ensemble, and even though Paige is the strong, central character, we can't help but share the dilemmas of Isaac and Max. Not least of all, Magnusson could have been stuck in a thankless role. Instead, the actor brings a distinct personality to Dad's shuffles, twitches and grunts. We feel sorry for Arnold to an extent, yet my emotions more often fell in line with Paige's characterization of him as a helpless buffoon.
As Paige, Kelly is the surprisingly strong matriarch whose deconstruction of family life is a hoot and a horror at the same time. Kelly is a wonderful actress whose glamorous, spot-on role as Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate at Aux Dog is eclipsed by domestic anarchist Paige. As well as being the strong center, Paige is reinventing herself day to day. Kelly overplays neither this inner lack of confidence nor the outright wackiness of Paige's vengeance.
I thought some of the actors' choices could have been different, especially in certain lines that seemed thrown away instead of articulated. For instance, I never really understood Maxis he a prisoner? A patsy?although Vann's androgynous look and perfectly P.C. utterances are apt. Also, Paige often calls Isaac "I," yet this obvious reference to the ego is never brought to the fore in terms of Isaac's place in the family.
Green's deft direction allows us a dump's-eye view of a family trapped by economic and existential circumstances and pre-assigned gender roles. Whether or not they break through into self-realization is the work of this play.
Through August 14, 2016, The Vortex Theater, 2900 Carlisle Blvd. NE, (505) 247-8600, vortextabq.org