"Thin Wall," Phoef Sutton's provocative new play that opened last week at the New Playwrights' Theatre, is a disturbing visit to the dark side of the television generation. Although the violence that runs like a virus through Sutton's characters, infecting each in a different way, is not directly attributed to the tube, the influence is clear.
Indeed, a television sits on stage and figures in the action of the play when heisted by the felonious neighbor next door. Switched on at one point, it broadcasts a rerun of "Bonanza," one of those simple-minded westerns on which the characters, all somewhere in their late twenties, were undoubtedly nurtured.
Matt (Robert D. Carroll) arrives unannounced to seduce his high school girlfriend, Susan, who never "went all the way" with him. Susan, (Mary Woods) once divorced, is Sutton's version of a typical single: she works at an uninspiring job, which pays the rent on her anonymous Los Angeles-area garden apartment and buys her few furnishings, as well as the frozen food in her refrigerator and the dress-for-success clothes in her closet. She is lonely and often beds down with men she wishes she hadn't. In residence on her convertible sofa is a friend of a friend, Duane (Ernie Meier) -- a young man with no job but plenty of psychobabblish views on life, love and violence. Through the thin plasterboard walls of the apartment can be heard the fierce sounds of Pam and Frank next door, he a brutal wife-beater, she a willing victim.
As the play opens, Matt is breaking into Susan's apartment, gun in hand, only to find Duane instead of the object of his desire. Matt has a frontier morality: breaking into an apartment is okay, but hitting women is wrong. There is something alarmingly appealing about Matt; the simplicity and directness of his approach is seductive (as Susan finds). Duane, the voice of reason (modern California version) is singularly ineffective, however laudatory his principles. When Matt offers to "take care of" the little problem of Frank, one can't help feeling his gun-supported threats might have produced a lower body count at the end of the play.
Each character has to confront violence: two by perpetuating it and three by reacting to it. They all toy with it, as though the threats and intimidation are a not-entirely-unfamiliar game, one they've seen, perhaps, on television but not actually played themselves. Even those who reject violence in fact rather admire it. Pam (an especially touching performance by Carolyn Swift) is unable to leave her violent husband and constantly apologizes for him, but slowly -- very slowly -- realizes that one reason she gets beaten is that she's there.
All the performances are distinct and appropriate, and director Arthur Bartow has fueled the play with tension and surprise as well as humor. Mary Woods is both sad and resilient as Susan, and Meier, as Duane, is wimpy without being spineless. Seth Jones as Frank is more vehement than threatening, but Carroll plays the reprehensible Matt without making him hateful, a subtle underlining of a troubling theme.