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A CurtainUp Review: Enter the Night

by Les Gutman

Illnesses will be the subject of plays
funded by pharmaceutical laboratories.
--- Maria Irene Fornes
This, the second installment in Signature Theatre's Maria Irene Fornes season, represents a New York premiere. Enter the Night had its world premiere in 1993, at a place called Theater Zero in Seattle. It was further developed the following year in Dallas, as a part of something called the Big D Festival of the Unexpected. These may be viewed as apt markers: some will think it adds up to nothing; others will respond to some of its unanticipated chords; only a loyal few are likely to rejoice it has finally found its way to the New York stage. 

Coming on the heels of a season-opening pair of one-acts, "Mud" and "Drowning," that ranges from, in my words, "the most visceral to the incredibly poetic," Enter the Night shows Fornes at her most obtuse and incredibly inaccessible. It's a fiercely personal work -- so she says and so it seems -- and in Sonya Moser's staging at least, never translates into anything much more than an exercise in self-indulgence. 

Fornes has never been concerned especially about the size or scope of her audience. Even her best known work (most would say it is Fefu and Her Friends) has hovered at the margins as the work of her fellow avant garde playwrights of the sixties has become better known. Signature's dedication of this season to Ms. Fornes suggests she has been wrongly ignored. That may be the case, but not on the evidence of this play. 

The broad, tall stage at what is now known as the Peter Norton Space plays comfortable home to the spacious loft of Tressa (Rebecca Harris), a nurse who is hosting a reunion that includes two old friends: Paula (Barbara Tarbuck), an older woman who lives in a house in the country, and Jack (Dallas Roberts), a young playwright currently working as an assistant stage manager. Anyone who has attended a reunion as an outsider will appreciate the predicament of the audience here: there exists an insoluble chemistry and a language that defies translation, a celebration of a type of love that is not necessarily transcendent. This playwright's elliptical exposition does little to bridge the gap. Unlike the vivid triangle she etched in "Mud," this one remains a blur. 

Much of Fornes's game here is a less-than-groundbreaking consideration of gender identification, guilt, sex, mortality and the uneasy tension between art and beauty. Tressa has a penchant for dressing up as an Asian man. Jack thinks he has AIDS but doesn't. Paula is not well, and not liking it. While some of the impressions the characters make are fascinating, they never coalesce.
Fornes has abandoned her trademark of short punchy scenes that black out when they are about over, leaving the audience with a moment to ponder what they mean Instead most of the first act of Enter the Night is a single hour long scene, with the reading of Jack's new play in which Paula and Tressa portray a (male/female) couple, as the nadir. The second act reverts to the playwright's more familiar short scene style and, if nothing else, moves along much better. 

But it's an odd kettle of fish. It begins with a sexual escapade in which Jack and Tressa reënact a scene from D.W. Griffiths' 1919 film, Broken Blossoms, with Jack portraying the Lillian Gish role and Tressa as the "yellow man" who shelters her from her brutish father and supposedly rapes her. After Paula discovers their act, we are treated to a very amusing shtick in which Jack rehearses his stage managerial duties. This would be very well received most nights at The Duplex, but here is mystifying. Next we have an equally obscure scene in which Paula returns drunk saying she's hit Jack's car, although on further observation she has not. And there's more: Jack, having left the loft, is found attached to one of the theater's columns (a tree?) with his chest covered in blood, proclaiming that he has been gang-raped and is, again, suffering from AIDS. Email me when all of this gels. 

What I don't need help understanding is that the acting which is quite good. Dallas Roberts is in fact astonishing, whether portraying a gay white male New York playwright wannabe, a  developmentally-disadvantaged clown, leaping about like a gazelle, a frail young silent movie girl, a victim of sexual assault or any of the other eccentricities expected of him.Maybe this is not a play after all, but just a terrific audition. Casting directors ought not to miss it. Everyone else can take the night off. 

CurtainUp's review of "Mud" and "Drowning" 
By Maria Irene Fornes  
with Rebecca Harris, Dallas Roberts and Barbara Tarbuck 

Directed by Sonja Moser    
Set Design: Christine Jones  
Lighting Design: Jane Cox 
Costume Design: Gabriel Barry 
Sound Design: Glen Tarachow  
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes with 1 intermission  
Signature Theatre, 555 West 42nd Street (10th/11th Avs.) (212) 244-PLAY  
Signature Website:   
Opened December 5, 1999 Closing December 19, 1999  
Reviewed by Les Gutman 12/6/1999 based on a 12/2/1999 performance.
©Copyright 1999, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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