SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
September 29, 2013

Seeing Brad Dourif

 

Shortly before ten a.m. on a Sunday morning, Morgan and I lined up outside the old Worldwide dollar theater on West 50th Street in Midtown Manhattan. Much to our delight and amazement, at some point in all those years after New York’s last cheap second-run movie house shut down, someone had the good sense to transform it into a multi-stage off-Broadway theater. Not being wealthy people, our hope was to snare a couple of rush tickets for that afternoon’s matinee performance of Tennessee Williams’ 1970 post-asylum weirdie, The Two-Character Play.

            Some people at this point might be asking why the hell a blindo would want to go to a stage play he’d never be able to see. Those same people might also ask why that same blindo would try to make a point of watching two or three movies he can’t see every night. I generally suggest these people mind their own fucking business and just shut the hell up about it.

            We weren’t particularly rabid Tennessee Williams fans. Fact was, we’d never heard of the play. We weren’t big theater people either. The only more or less live theater we’d seen over the last twenty years might’ve more properly been called musical performances with theatrical overtones—shows by the likes of Laurie Anderson and The Residents. When it came to regular plain old theater, we mostly paid it no attention. We were, however, mighty big Brad Dourif fans, which was pretty much the only reason either one of us would find ourselves standing on a Midtown sidewalk on a Sunday morning. It takes a hell of a lot to get us above 14th Street, let alone deep into the nightmare that is Midtown Manhattan, but if any actor could convince us to leap into the very stinking bowels of Hell that way, it was Brad Dourif.

            To the masses he’s probably best known for his roles in Lord of the Rings, Deadwood, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (for which he received an Oscar nomination), and as the voice of Chucky in all those Child’s Play movies. For my money, though, over his thirty-five-year career, I’ve latched on to his performances in smaller, more idiosyncratic films like John Huston’s Wise Blood, Sonny Boy, and the films he’s made with David Lynch and Werner Herzog (in particular Herzog’s remarkable Wild Blue Yonder). He’s one of the most brilliant, eccentric, intense, and versatile actors of the last four decades. I’m hard pressed to name any living actors I give a hoot in hell about, with this singular exception. He’s been pigeonholed by many as a genre character actor specializing in horror films, but even if you’re one of those snooty types who dismiss horror films, his performances are endlessly fascinating. The Two-Character Play would be the first time he’d performed onstage in nearly thirty years, and we weren’t about to miss it, even if I wouldn’t be able to see a damn thing.

            We expected the show to be sold out long before we got to the theater, given the press it had received and the fact that Dourif’s co-star was Pulp Fiction’s Amanda Plummer (I didn’t care about her). The line for rush tickets outside the box office, short as it was, only diminished our expectations further. But we’d forgotten the old Worldwide (now called the New World Playhouse) was home to several separate theaters offering several different plays, including the tourist favorite Avenue Q and some kid-friendly Chinese extravaganza called Gazillion Bubbles.

            Yes, Gazillion Bubbles.

            Tempting as that was, our minds were made up, even though the multicultural crew of young hipsters in front of us left us already making tentative alternative plans.

            So a few minutes later after the box office opened we were shocked and amazed to learn they not only still had rush tickets for the Williams play, but that the cheap rush tickets we snared were for front row center. These things don’t usually happen to us, and we were well prepared to head back downtown and wait for the bars to open. Instead Satan smiled upon us for once and there was much delighted whooping, which prompted the man in the box office to offer a confused and worried half-grin. I’m guessing people generally didn’t do much whooping at the prospect of sitting through an experimental Tennessee Williams play.

            From the sound of them, I’m also guessing the audience in the tiny underground theater wouldn’t have done much whooping if they’d known what they’d gotten themselves into. About three-quarters of the crowd consisted of elderly theater mavens out for their weekly matinee, preferably one with lots of flashy production numbers. The other quarter were mostly kids in flip-flops who knew Pulp Fiction and the Chucky films, but not much else. This was another advantage to being in the front row, as it severely limited the range of my murderous impulses.

            Williams wrote the play late in his career, not long after his partner died and he himself ended up in the madhouse for a spell. Coincidentally or not, the play was premiered a year after Samuel Beckett received the Nobel Prize. If you listen carefully, all of those factors are reflected in one way or another in the story of Felice (Dourif) and Claire (Plummer), a struggling, quite possibly incestuous brother and sister acting team, both teetering on the edge of paranoid madness, as they prepare for that evening’s performance. That’s when they realize their entire stage crew has walked out on them. They have no money, no way to get home, no hotel room to go to, no choice but to go ahead and put on the play as best they can.

            The play, as it happens, concerns a possibly incestuous brother and sister teetering on the brink of paranoid madness. They live alone in a crumbling Southern mansion, they have no money, and they’re too terrified to step outside. Given that they have no stagehands to do these things for them, Claire and Felice are forced to turn on their own music, handle their own lighting cues, and announce certain stage directions aloud when assorted props aren’t available. It’s a little unnerving, but funny all the same. Over the course of two acts Felice and Claire slip back and forth between the play and themselves, all the while struggling to leave wherever they are but finding it impossible. It’s a bit like watching both acts of Waiting for Godot simultaneously.

            Williams’ dialogue is understandably much more florid then Beckett’s, the situation much more Southern Gothic, and it’s hard, experimental as the play is, not to read a good deal of autobiography into it.

            Plummer’s insistent use of a sing-song voice got a bit aggravating after a bit, but as expected Dourif, now sixty-three, was intense and obsessive and sweaty. Very very sweaty. Given the roles he’s played in the past it suited him perfectly, and he delivered a gut-wrenching performance.

            During intermission, the trio of crones sitting next to me kept muttering “woist play I ever seen.” I took strange comfort from that. At that moment I still wasn’t sure what to make of all this myself, but hearing that repeated “woist play I ever seen” convinced me there must be something valuable here. Even by the time it ended I wasn’t sure, but as the days passed I found it all sticking with me, and the more it stuck the more I began to put things together. People tend to dismiss Williams in the later stages of his career as a man who drank too much, popped too many pills, and continued typing compulsively though little of value was coming out anymore. I’m no theater person, but there was clearly still a spark here, a drive to try something new with all the old themes. Like Godot (again intentionally or not) what resulted was a tragi-comedy of utter hopelessness. And what’s not to love about that?

            As we were leaving we saw Dourif in the lobby. He had a suitcase with him and was clearly anxious to get out of there. I was tempted to stop, to say hello and shake his hand, but he was surrounded by the flip-flopped youngsters pestering him with questions, asking him to explain what the play was all about. Yeah, it was better not to add to that, so we went to a bar instead, mighty glad we’d taken that trip to Midtown that morning.

 

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