Ah, personal relationships! How could we manage without them? What other aspect of our lives lends itself to such complex examination, consumes so much time, produces such a rich harvest of agony and ecstasy?
Food and fine wine, perhaps.
Still, it's hard to think about haute cuisine morning, noon and night. One of the characters in "Self-Torture & Strenuous Exercise," the first of two one-act plays by Harry Kondoleon currently on view at the Round House Theatre, certainly gives it a good try. But even he is using his preoccupation with comestibles as a way not to face up to the wife who is about to leave him. (As she is carried out the door by the other man, she calls back reassuringly to her still-disbelieving husband, "You'll know I didn't walk out on you.")
Neuroticism and nuttiness -- they are the hallmarks of Kondoleon's world, a land where the eternally discontented flail themselves and one another, break up and recouple in a slapstick orgy of recrimination and self-doubt. It's as if the Marx Brothers had taken up temporary residence inside "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
The brief "Self-Torture" and its longer, stranger companion piece, "The Fairy Garden," are not as dramatically satisfying as Kondoleon's full-length "Christmas on Mars," which the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company performed a couple of seasons ago. They are, however, strewn with evidence of an original comic sensibility that marries zaniness and anguish, pratfalls and pain. And they are acted with considerable zest at the Round House.
To the extent that they have plots, the plays chronicle the hopeless tangles produced by people hellbent on finding sexual and emotional fulfillment. The catalyst in "Self-Torture" is an egotistic writer who cannibalizes the lives of his wife and friends for his second-rate novels. In "The Fairy Garden," a slightly offcenter, if sprightly, fairy godmother turns up to grant the characters a wish -- which, under the circumstances, is rather like giving them more rope to hang themselves.
But it should probably be noted that Kondoleon's me-people will seize on just about any pretext to unleash their pent-up venom, slash their wrists, trash the floral arrangement on the dining room table or run away with the first white knight to darken the doorstep. In their desperate bid to make sense of their lives, they make only wreckage. Watching these plays is a little like watching a demolition team level a building -- exhilarating as the walls collapse, but oddly sad once the dust settles.
"The Fairy Garden" is the more tantalizing piece, although not necessarily because it's better structured. Mixing, as it does, farce, Grand Guignol, fantasy and surrealism in a flower-decked bower that could house "The Importance of Being Earnest," it is a fairly disheveled work. It involves a pair of estranged homosexual lovers, an indolent wife who's gearing up to leave her wealthy husband for a mechanic, and the husband who's also preparing to bolt. As they all set about ordering their lives -- which is to say, disordering them even more -- a kind of ruefulness creeps into the script.
At the end, one of the homosexuals, alone and forlorn, finds himself wishing that "everybody rotten would go away." "You want the world to disappear?" asks the wise fairy godmother. (She may look as if she's just come from the prom, but she will be, she admits coyly, "120 in March.")
Let's not overstate the sense of emptiness that underlies the overblown passions. It's there, but mostly in the cracks of a comedy that is distinctly crackpot. Take the Mechanic, for instance. We are led to believe that he repairs automobiles, like any good mechanic. But very nearly the first words out of his mouth, when he turns up in the garden, are "Hey, you wanna see me dance?"
He is, it appears, really a stripper by trade and "the Mechanic" is the role he adopts when shedding his clothes. With little prompting, in fact, he's soon doing his number and explaining its intricate dynamics. John Michael Higgins handles the mock-Chippendale assignment with a dimwitted athleticism that all but stops the show. The actor is no less effective as the nebbishy, food-obsessed husband in "Self-Torture," who envisions God as a kind of great chef in the sky. But "the Mechanic," while not the season's profoundest role -- dare I say it is skin deep? -- is surely one of the flashiest.
Kathy Yarman goes overboard as the neurotic wife in "Self-Torture," but gets the comic slant on the bored wife in "The Fairy Garden" by playing her as a gallant 1940s Hollywood heroine. A diaphanous Christopher Hurt and a waspish Steven LeBlanc offer amusing portraits of the warring homosexuals, and Debra Cole, turning up her nose and (whenever she plops down) her toes, makes a properly ditsy fairy godmother.
Director Max Mayer vigorously exploits the potential for mayhem in the scripts. Indeed, "Self-Torture" verges on a zap-powie cartoon at times. In "The Fairy Garden," he manages more: Outlandish as matters get, he never lets the actors sever ties with recognizable realities. Kondoleon's characters are a mess, but they're not unreal.
They complain and weep. Sometimes they brandish knives and cutting words. They're forever dreaming of a more perfect union. But they're prisoners of a narcissistic age, rattling their cages (and their mates) in an attempt to break free. Even a magic wand can't help them.
Self-Torture & Strenuous Exercise and The Fairy Garden.
By Harry Kondoleon. Directed by Max Mayer; sets, Jane Williams Flank; costumes, Marsha LeBoeuf; lighting, Joseph B. Musumeci Jr. With John Michael Higgins, Kathy Yarman, Christopher Hurt, Debra Cole, Nick Olcott, Steven LeBlanc. At the Round House Theatre through Jan. 3.