Foraying, as it has done before, into the realms of sex, power, loneliness, and the search for love, EDGE has lined up three one-act plays: Subway, a world premiere monologue by New York actor-writer Chuck McMahon, gives voice to a disaffected, possibly drug-addicted young man; Bondage, by nationally acclaimed playwright David Henry Hwang (whose latest work Golden Child has been earning favorable notices at New York's Public Theatre) investigates the relationship between a dominatrix and her client in an S&M parlor; and The Problem, an early offering by A.R. Gurney, Jr., the American theater's foremost chronicler of WASP ennui, delineates the elaborate games played by a bored married couple.
On paper, the presentation of this trio seems a compelling and quirky way to limn the mysteries of the human heart. In execution, however, the productions fail to satisfy. Although each one flares at isolated moments with energy and a modicum of insight, the evening as a whole is marred by Kevin Dean's unimaginative direction and a series of stilted performances devoid of nuance.
McMahon's 1995 Subway leads the pack. Anyone who has ridden the New York City transit system has encountered the character in this opening piece, or at least someone very much like him. Using a train ride as the framework for the monologue, McMahon introduces us to a disheveled street kid with nowhere to go, but plenty of attitude. Like many homeless public transportation riders with a story to tell but no listeners, this young man claims a subway car as his stage and regales passengers (in this case invisible ones) with philosophy, perceptions about humanity, and snippets of his personal life. While "audience members" on the real subway might chuckle quietly at a trenchant observation or two, they would probably change seats or bury their faces in newspapers so as not to encourage him. By shaping a street person's ramblings into an intelligible story and sustaining that story throughout a 100-block trip, McMahon forces us, in theory anyway, to listen to a sometimes funny but mostly sad tale told by someone we would otherwise tune out. But this uninspired production does very little to illuminate McMahon's material. As if we really were on a ride with a semicoherent passenger, we stop paying attention long before the end of the journey.
Actor Teo Castellanos certainly looks the part. Unshaven, with hollowed-out cheeks, sharp facial bones, and a glazed look in his eyes, he appears not to have eaten in days. Wearing a ratty bandanna and rumpled, baggy clothes, he convincingly mimes moving from strap to pole on a subway car and, for added effect, his leg shakes to the rhythm of the moving train. (Or are those the involuntary tremors of a junkie?) But he makes the big mistake of never, not once during the entire monologue, establishing eye contact with the audience. (Here the blame must also be placed at the feet of director Dean for not drawing the actor outside himself.) Since Castellanos makes no effort to connect with us, his internalized, self-involved characterization elicits more impatience than sympathy; ultimately, we simply don't care.
The next, and the most provocative, of the three, David Henry Hwang's Bondage, starts off with a compelling premise and the hint of engaging comic performances. Eventually, though, as the long-winded script overstates its points about ethnic and gender stereotyping, as the actors begin repeating themselves, and as the staging grows redundant, the production runs out of steam.
Bondage was commissioned by the Humana Festival at the Actors' Theater of Louisville in 1992. In the script Hwang, best known for the captivating, 1988 Tony Award-winning M. Butterfly, uses the ritualized, highly theatrical practices of sadomasochism to wrestle with themes that have concerned him in much of his work, including identity, sexuality, and immigrant assimilation into American culture. The action takes place in a bondage parlor, where a dominatrix named Terri (played by Lisa B., as she calls herself in the program) draws a salary by fulfilling her customers' fantasies. On this particular day, she and a client named Mark (Robert T.), both dressed in black leather from head to toe, including hoods, are role-playing different races: First, Terri is a blond WASP and Mark is an Asian man; next Terri pretends to be a tough-talking black woman while Mark becomes a liberal white dude; when Mark returns to playing an Asian guy, Terri counters him as an Asian woman. With each shift Hwang has the pair sling stereotypes at each other, driving home the idea of how ethnic labeling imprisons us: By pigeonholing, we keep our emotional distance and protect ourselves from ever getting close.