Monday, January 25, 2010

Pterodactyls - by Nicky Silver

I love reading multiple plays by one writer. Obsessions and patterns emerge, but also each play's unique way of weaving the material, texturing it. It's the same but different.

Pterodactyls premiered in 1993, so before The Food Chain (1994), and before Raised In Captivity (1995). Can I comment here on the remarkable a play a year run at the Vineyard, and that there are cast over-laps - particularly Hope Davis who seems to have been in each? It feels earlier though - it feels messier, it takes on a thousand things and lodges itself in a family that nobody is going to escape from clean.

A long first act (summer) followed by a second act comprised of two scenes (fall and winter). I think I say messier because it's got that fluidity of monologues and lines spoken out, of characters following their own paths through the same landscape, without a sense of any imposed structure. It follows its own logic and it works. I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that many playwrights start this way, there's a breathlessness, a scrambling to keep up with yourself and get it all down exactly as it is felt in early plays. Maybe. And then things develop, new muscles grow, new concerns. Not that the development is a bad thing, absolutely not, but it can be kindof an awkward period. A bumpy-skinned, gangly adolescence after the effortless simplicity of a child's access to whatever well writing comes from.

Back on track. In the first act, Emma brings Tommy home to meet her mother. He's a waiter, they're going to be married and Grace, Emma's mother, disapproves because he's not good enough, but relents enough to give him a job as a maid, complete with uniform that Tommy is happy to wear. Todd comes home after a long absence and informs them that he has AIDS, his father insists on calling him Buzz and wants to play catch, his mother refuses to engage with the information. Through monologues and flashbacks stories from this family emerge while in the present there is a willful refusal to listen or to engage with one another that propels the action into the second act where the consequences of the first act gain stakes and significance as the wedding is planned and Emma is pregnant. The final scene is almost a coda, each character holding on to their crutches and defenses as faded as Mrs. Havisham's dress and as precious to them. Throughout the play, Todd has discussed dinosaurs, excavated bones from the backyard, constructed a skeleton of a baby Tyrannosaurus, and this image gives the final monologue the final kiss of the play.

I would have liked to have seen this one back in 1993. I would have been a year out of high school, my head dripping with Very Important Political Playwrights as well as the primacy of devised work over text. I have a notion had I seen this the rug may have been pulled out from under me a few years earlier than it finally was. (In a production of Hurricane by Erin Cressida Wilson, 1997). But, as it was, our paths did not cross back then - NYC was not on my radar in those days, baffling but true - and I was somehow insistant on reading up on Performance Semiotics instead of new work. Maybe all this blogosphere stuff can introduce some plays and points of view to students at impressionable ages. That would certainly be a good thing.

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