Somewhere, across the river from ... somewhere else ... there’s a cyber-cafe with two strange young women peering in, in hysterics over what they see and trying to get inside.
That’s how We Are Not These Hands, Sheila Callaghan’s play as produced by San Francisco’s noted Crowded Fire Theater Co., opens in its world premiere at the Ashby Stage.
Callaghan, who’s achieved recognition in New York for pieces like Dead City, a Joycean Bloomsday in the Big Apple that starred singer Patti Smith and others, said of her new play, “I wanted to write about the challenges of third world countries, but I didn’t know how. So instead I wrote a love story.”
The genesis of her play came during a trip to China, where in poor villages along the Yangtze, she noted illicit cyber-cafes hidden down side alleys. In news stories at home, she read of the death of 41 students, blown up while assembling firecrackers in their eastern China school, and of 24 people dying in Beijing when two teenagers set fire to an unlicensed cyber-cafe from which they’d been 86ed.
Those anecdotes all figure in We Are Not These Hands, reset from specific locales to a kind of nowhere in between, and acted out by Cassie Beck and Juliet Tanner as local teenagers, Belly and Moth.
The two also express themselves in the dialect of their zone, a clipped, racy idiom stuck together more expressionistically than grammatically. It settles into a kind of run-down rube jargon. At just about the point when the locals become comprehensible, a man in a sports coat and carrying a briefcase (Paul Lancour) appears inside the cafe, where he types up a storm in academese (visible on a big screen where, otherwise, media and advertising images rush). The girls immediately dub him “Leather.”
Leather later delivers a monologue into a pocket tape recorder while in the restroom; he speaks as if to his mother, who he later declares is dead. A good deal of the play’s hook is in the disparity between the girls’ slangy dialogues and Leather’s soliloquies into his machine.
In one of the funniest scenes, the two teenagers, outlandishly dolled up, accost Leather at his computer screen and pantomime puerile sex acts. He tries ignoring them, then treats them as panhandlers until he finally gets the idea and propositions Moth.
In his all-but flophouse room above, Leather loquaciously explains to the wide-eyed, uncomprehending Moth why he came to their backwater, and about the social economics manuscript he’s researching and writing there that’ll make him big back home.
His rambling circumlocutions are almost as thick as the girls’ jumbled-up speech. Moth mostly answers “okay” to everything, until Leather starts to make love to her, when she bubbles over in a fount of words, a little like Molly Bloom at the end of Ulysses.
Later Moth tells Belly of her orgasm and Belly wants the same treatment. The two scheme how to get Leather to take them with him when he leaves; when they realize he’s digging in for a long haul, and uninterested in a menage à trois, they retaliate on what started it all: the cyber-cafe.
A play like this depends on the exuberance of the performers, and the cast pulls it off, inhabiting strangeness quite naturally. Tanner gives a sensitive and nuanced performance as Moth, following Leather and his endless stream of words with her “big, wild eyes,” punctuated by an occasional “okay.”
In fact, some of the best moments are the silent ones, the girls staring into the cafe or when the characters’ mostly self-absorbed speech breaks down and actions take over.
Kent Nicholson, a specialist in new play development, has directed We Are Not These Hands well, lending rhythm and atmosphere to a text that is groping, even threadbare at times, a one-trick pony that neither takes off from its sources nor explores them in depth, analogizing them into limbo.
It’s an old device to juxtapose characters from different backgrounds to examine reality, but the characters in We Are Not These Hands never achieves the binocular vision of Don Quixote and Sancho, or Robinson Crusoe and Friday, not to mention the wealth of examples in Paul Bowles.
The primitiveness of the language is amusing but not particularly inventive. The equation of the childlike (or childish) and the primitive sometimes becomes cloying, too close to babytalk.
Science fiction writers have long juxtaposed unlikely environments and exotic characters to cast light on things closer to home. The living science fiction of the New World Order goes a lot further than cyber-cafes: A few years ago in places around east Asia, peasants would go out at dawn to a cafe for a latte, dressed in Italian suits and shoes, then return home to change into overalls and drive a tractor in the fields where a few decades previous life was green tea and ox, or hand-pulled plows.
We Are Not These Hands tries to hold onto a sense of wonder, both childlike and eccentric, a funny valentine to intercultural mix ’n’ match. Its intimate naivete misses the speechless awe of a composite, self-involved world that could only dub itself “postmodern” and the astonishment of taking a step back and looking at it.