When "And Things That Go Bump in the Night," the first play by a then-young Terrence McNally, opened on Broadway in 1965, the kindlier critics treated it as the loathsome regurgitation of a sick mind. McNally later went on to a successful play-writing career, but "Things" vanished into the dark night.
Not quite forever, though. The Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, which has a refreshingly independent mind, has retrieved the work from oblivion to round out its current three-play repertory. While I wouldn't hail "Things" as a lost masterpiece -- it is very much a youthful play, filled with youthful excesses -- it has acquired a rather mesmerizing relevance in the 20-odd years it's been out of sight.
On the surface, the script seems cut from absurdist cloth. McNally's characters -- a vampirish mother, her somnolent husband, their two neurotic children and a crotchety grandfather who's soon to be shipped off to an old-folks' farm -- are getting ready to spend another night in the basement fortress they call home-fetid-home. Outside their door, beyond the electrified fence, society has dissolved into chaos. Curfews are in force; power failures are routine; with dusk, the nameless terror settles in.
Petrified at the prospect of venturing into the world, where "it" may happen at any moment, the family members turn inward -- attacking one another with insult and vituperation, and indulging in ritualistic games that are meant to hold the fear at bay. Typical retort, daughter-to-father category: "How are you ever going to have that heart attack, if you sleep all the time?" Typical retort, son-to-mother division: "Ruby, you look so feminine in steel."
Indeed, these predators would quickly devour one another without the distractions of a nightly victim -- an innocent young man or woman whom the bisexual son, Sigfrid, lures regularly into their incestuous den. Once seduced, the victim is subjected to a round of abject humiliations, by which the family appeases its anxieties and reclaims an illusory sense of superiority and strength.
If absurdism is now spent as a force in the theater,it's not because its practitioners used such bizarre symbols for our helplessness as a species. It is, I suspect, because their metaphors they have proved to be far more literal than we ever could have imagined. Since "Things" had its abortive Broadway debut, we have had to deal with repeated assassinations, meltdowns and a raging drug epidemic. Living with crime has become second nature. Homosexuality, still a taboo in 1965, has roared out of the closet. In short, much of what apparently made "Things" seem so far out two decades ago has been absorbed into our consciousnesses. No longer shocked by it, we are free to discover just how much of today's anguish throbs under its fierce, almost operatic surface and its baroque dialogue.
The youthful Woolly Mammoth cast has had to stretch a few age barriers to portray this three-generation nest of vipers. But in general the same sharp and keenly connected acting that has marked the other two works in the repertory ("New York Mets," "Christmas on Mars") prevails this time around. It would be easy to get derailed by some of McNally's poisonously florid language, but director Howard Shalwitz, while recognizing the outlandishness of the piece, has focused on its emotional realities. More than protracted bitchery, "Things" is transformed into a play about exacerbated needs of people so gripped by hysteria that they will welcome any kind of absolution.
Michaeleen O'Neil lacks about 20 years for the role of Ruby, a former diva whom her children now call "the opera queen." Her icy blond beauty and her understated hauteur, however, give the performance a horrible seductiveness. You expect the character to be shriller -- especially when she dons a Maria Callas get-up for the nightly exorcism. But what O'Neil does with a cool sense of control and the bilingual veneer of a European aristocrat assumes a viciousness of its own. T.fs,1 J. Edwards brings a sickly vigor to the role of the degenerate son, Sigfrid, and Gra'inne Cassidy plays the daughter, 13-year-old Lackme, in that heightened state of precocity where precocity turns into aggression.
There's also a wonderful contribution by Michael Willis, costumed and made up to look like a figure from Hieronymous Bosch on his way to damnation. As the cantankerous grandfather, he is a hilarious mound of aches and gripes, too self-absorbed to stop the mad rituals, but not yet willing to endorse them.
Amid so much baseness, Grover Gardner stands out like a lamb being readied for slaughter. A sad, ineffectual idealist, he has followed Sigfrid into this dungeon, submitted to his lovemaking and allowed himself to be put into a white dress. Unbeknownst to him, he's even been photographed in his degradation, and the pictures soon crop up as the pie ce de re'sistance in a slide show. It's all part of the family's corrosive entertainments -- so traumatizing that he will eventually hurl himself into noisy void of night.
Not a few of the demons rattling around "Things" are those of the repressed homosexual sensibility yet to be freed by the gay liberation movement. But there are also obvious parallels with Ionesco ("Wipe Out Games"), Pinter ("The Homecoming") and above all Edward Albee ("Zoo Story," "Tiny Alice" and the second act of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf"). Logic is not its strong suit -- or really, even a passing concern -- and the writing often screams, literally and figuratively.
But "Things" still emerges as a surprisingly apt nightmare for the times, a Rorschach test of our angst. With this revival, which plays on alternate nights through Aug. 2, Woolly Mammoth has managed three solid successes in a row. Better than seeing one is seeing two. Best of all is seeing three.
The company, long the most adventurous of Washington's small theaters, has indisputably come of age.
And Things That Go Bump in the Night, by Terrence McNally. Directed by Howard Shalwitz. Set, Ronald J. Olsen; lighting, Steve Summers; costumes, Jane Schloss Phelan and Petricia Raabe; sound, Gil Thompson. With Jim Wilder, Michael Willis, T.J. Edwards, Gra'inne Cassidy, Michaeleen O'Neil, Grover Gardner. At the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, in repertory through Aug. 2.