You May Go Now: New Absurdist Comedy at
The setting is a generic-appearing kitchen with appliances introduced before the mid-20th century. Widowed mother Dottie, who speaks and carries herself in an artificially regal manner, is instructing her 18-year-old daughter Betty in how to make a white cake. A mélange of information can be gleaned from their dialogue. "Mr. Hoover" is President. Betty has been kept home and sheltered from any contact with boys, only taking her out to go to the supermarket. Her only knowledge of sex is from articles in the Reader's Digest. Both her mother and the magazine teach her to spend her life at home catering to the happiness of her "master of the house" breadwinner husband. Inexplicably, Betty discusses fellatio knowingly and graphically, but thinks that babies are inside her waiting to be "watered." Betty delights at the thought of having babies. Among those babies that she will have, she names Robert Redford, Patti Hearst and Rosa Parks. Dottie tells the Betty that it is now time for her to permanently leave the house to find and woo a man to be her husband. She forces the resistant, fearful Betty to leave. Now alone, Dottie is bereft. Make sure that you got that because scene two does not quite follow.
When her college professor husband Robert arrives home, Dottie is making herself a hero sandwich and writing a book on her laptop. Dottie hates to cook and never prepares any meals nor does anything else for her husband. Their marriage is now without passion. Robert desperately wants children to pass on his knowledge to them, but a doctor has told him that he is infertile. He wants to adopt, but Dottie is disinterested and only wants to play with her old doll, which she has just found and named Betty. Robert wearily goes upstairs from where the sound of a gunshot informs us that he has shot himself. Maybe one more scene to get to the first act curtain.
Betty returns home to find Dottie lying on a couch. She met six different guys at the bus stop, but nothing panned out because she was incapable of holding a conversation ("He asked me how I feel about Darfur. I didn't know."). However, Betty did meet one boy who turned her on. When he asked her what was her favorite book, she had no answer and panicked and ran away. She goes upstairs to get her figure-enhancing orange dress so that she can return to the bus stop for a second chance at love, that is, if second chances exist. Robert enters from a sink cabinet. He sees Dottie cooking, and asks her where she learned to cook. Hearing Betty upstairs, Robert asks where she came from, meaning "who is she?." He goes upstairs (because "some people are sad") and apparently shoots himself. Instantaneously, a man, Betty's bus stop passion, shoots himself in the leg as he falls into the house from outside. Philip tells Betty that she is beautiful; grown-up Betty tells him that they just met at the bus stop. He responds, "I'm Philip, You're Natasha." "No, I'm not." Well, that is one more thing to ponder as the act one curtain falls.
This is pretty clever stuff and the incongruities continue to mount cleverly throughout the second act. Here diverse time periods conflate, Dottie alters her character, intelligence, behaviors and interests from one line to the next, Robert continues to shoot himself until he doesn't, and Philip is trying to undo the injustice of Dottie's dark secret. Betty and Robert, who may represent the present and future generations, end up full of hope. Dottie and Robert, who seem to represent past and passing generations, end up shrouded in gloom.
To Bekah Brunstetter's credit, her imaginative and extremely dense narrative hangs together with reasonable coherence. However, its overabundant, repetitive humorous lines too often fall flat in the gloom of her narrative. Adding unnecessarily to the distraction of a very clever, but difficult and distracting, structure are references to hot button issues whose only purpose seems to be to burnish Brunstetter's socio-political credentials. Even more costly are the constantly changing natures of Dottie, Betty and, to a lesser degree, Philip. Although these changes are inherent to Brunstetter's design, their quick ping-pong pace deprives us of emotional involvement. The two women represent wives and daughters in a range of time frames. Dottie's happiness and marital relationships fall victim to discrimination, questionable and changing values, neglect, powerlessness, disrespect and exploitation. Generously, Bekah Brunstetter would have it that men are also victims of these disorders of society. If you are able to discern a straight line linking the Dotties and Bettys of the 1930s to their seemingly near modern day equivalents at the end of the play, You May Go Now might work better for you than it did for me. However, the overly clever construct is difficult to penetrate on an initial viewing.
Under the sure-handed direction of Margo Whitcomb, the company maximizes the play's virtues. Katrina Ferguson initially brings a satiric "Stepford Wife" quality to Dottie. When Dottie struggles with sadness and loss, Ferguson enhances the role with her quiet and sad dignity. Quinn Warren brings an engaging, bubbly personality to her Betty. As written, the quietly unhappy Robert is oddly unchanging in contrast to the evolving women. By being disciplined and remaining within the narrow parameters of the writing, Steven L. Barron fulfils the author's vision. Phil E. Eichinger brings likable, youthful fervor to the enigmatic Philip.
There is a particularly well-realized moment in Margo Whitcomb's direction and the performances of Katrina Ferguson and Quinn Warren. It occurs while Dottie is endeavoring to get Betty out of the house in the first scene. Thrice, Dottie places a small round hat on Dottie's head. Each time, the resistant Betty immediately, and in a metronomic fashion, raises both her hands to her head and removes the hat. The fourth time that Dottie places the hat on Betty's head, Dottie's hands remain on the hat. Thus, when Betty reflexively reaches up to remove it, her rhythm is broken, and we viscerally can feel that she has been defeated. Most well done.
You May Go Now will continue performances (Thursdays 7:30 PM; Fridays & Saturdays 8 P.M., Sun. 2:30 P.M.) through March 8, 2009 at the Centenary Stage Company on the campus of Centenary College, 400 Jefferson Street, Hackettstown, NJ 07840. Box Office: 908-979-0900; on-line: www.centenarystagecompany.org.
You May Go Now by Bekah Brunstetter; directed by Margo Whitcomb