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A CurtainUp Review
Cat's Paw
by Les Gutman

People talk about love when what they mean is closer to a hideous insidious itch.
---Mac Wellman
The last time I reviewed a Mac Wellman play (Hypatia, earlier this year, from the same seat at Soho Rep), I mentioned that he has been described as a linguistic exorcist. In Cat's Paw, he gives his cast of four women plenty of linguistic exercise, exorcising their own demons.

The play's title is but one of hundreds of complex yet passing word-images Wellman creates. Were it in French, perhaps we would have fun contemplating that, genitalia notwithstanding, cat is a masculine word whereas its paw is feminine. But in English we are left far more intrigued by Wellman's subtitle: "A Meditation on the Don Juan Theme." Interesting since the great lover and leaver does not appear in the play, and his name is only uttered a few times, and then only in a song entitled "Don Juan Dudgeon." On the other hand, a sizable chunk of the play is devoted to defining the term "dudgeon," and assaying why there's no such thing as low dudgeon.

Even when there are coded references to the characters' personal Don Juan's, they are mostly deflections:

Jane Bub (Laurie Williams): "I don't want to talk about Bermuda" (a euphemism, we later learn, for Key West).

Hildegard Bub, her mother (Nancy Franklin): "My Bermuda was Caracas."

Jo Rudge, Jane's friend (Ann Talman): "I don't want to talk about Singapore."

Lindsay Rudge, Jo's school-aged daughter, a self-styled genius (Alicia Goranson), seems thus far to have evaded a first-hand confrontation with a Don Juan, but she does offer the following in the nature of trenchant political commentary: "Ordinary Americans are not into complex things.... They want a strong man to lead them." (Lindsay is not ordinary.) She also learns from her mother that, unlike the two of them, her father was not a mammal but a reptile: a beaded snake, non-toxic but feared because it looks like a (poisonous) coral snake.

Wellman sets their interior journeys within visits to New York's tourist landmarks. The tightly-wound Jane and her wierdly-skewed mother have it out atop the Empire State Building; sour Jo joins suddenly rosier Jane at the World Trade Center's observation deck, where the former rants about love, life, work and the weather while the latter extols life as "our goldest God-given adornment" then, proudly reliving her own rebelliousness, Jo sneaks the hard-to-impress Lindsay into an off-limits area in the Statue of Liberty, trying vainly to discover a bridge across the generational abyss. Later, in the hallway of a downtown courthouse, the circle closes as Hildegard and Lindsay bond over a "most wonderful" story about a monster greaseball in a sewer line -- this while Jane uses her knowledge of metallurgy to help Jo convince the grand jury not to indict her for damaging Lady Liberty.

Thus are the ways of women, their friends and their mothers. But what of their lovers? What, indeed.

Cat's Paw employs a seemingly straightforward approach to storytelling. This is not unheard of in Mac Wellman's canon, but it's certainly not his stock-in-trade. My advice: don't invest in it too heavily; Wellman's got far more on his mind than simple storytelling. Behind the fašade of Wellman's outrageous wordplay, in which technically specific scientific explanations can be followed by quotes passed down from Great Aunt Dolly, and in which ordinary conversation can include words like "perspicacity" and still trail off in a blur of nonsense, there are women navigating in Lothario's wake. "Where does the wind go when it gets tired? ... To a wicker basket behind the moon."

The women on stage have a lot to navigate as well. Wellman has not made their jobs easy, and it probably goes without saying that the relationships of mothers and daughters are the trickiest of them all. All perform quite well.

Director Daniel Aukin has kept theatrics to a minimum, and Wellman's flights of word-fancy remarkably clear. Nancy Franklin lovably gives Hildegard an earnest nuttiness, rendering plausible every quirk Laurie Williams finds in Jane's personality: there's plenty of begrudgingly-offered affection as well. Jo finds herself on the shakiest emotional ground, but Ann Talmadge is sure-footed, oozing with pent-up frustration as both a woman and a mother, but ultimately not overwhelmed. Although Alicia Goranson seems a bit older than Lindsay ought to be, she gives the young woman just the right (if predictable) mix of adolescent omniscience and doubt.

Kyle Chepulis's set design (two white planes set in perspective and surrounded by black), aided by Michael O'Connor's lighting, is surprisingly effective in conveying the various locations. But while Robin Shane's costumes are quite apt, I don't know what to make of the diverting language of the country music the sound designer offers between scenes. Mac Wellman provides plenty of words for us to fathom without this additional, lyric-heavy assault.

Quite a "slice of the bacon of life," as Wellman would say.

LINKS
CurtainUp's review of Hypatia
CAT'S PAW
by Mac Wellman
Directed by Daniel Aukin 
with Alicia Goranson, Ann Talman, Nancy Franklin and Laurie Williams
Voice-overs: Jim Strahs
Set Design: Kyle Chepulis 
Lighting Design: Michael O'Connor 
Costume Design: Robin I. Shane 
Sound Design: Colin Hodges
Music: Cynthia Hopkins
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes with no intermission 
Soho Rep, 46 Walker Street (Church/Broadway) (212) 479-7979 
Opening 12/21/2000, Closing 1/20/2001 
Weds. - Sat @7:30, no perf. 12/27/00 or 1/3/01; $15 
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 12/20 performance
broadwaynewyork.com


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