With a clap of thunder, a lightning fla sh illuminates an enormous shadowy figure, behind gauze, before a window. A man hastily enters, pulling away that curtain, revealing a much smaller female form standing in the window casement, with greenbacks safety-pinned to the lace curtain that frames the window.
The man, Scooper (Cassidy Brown), insouciantly inquires of his mother Henny (Joan Mankin) what’s the matter. She, after muttering deliriously about staunching up the bleeding with Super-Kotex and waving a St. Jude over it, parts her robe ... her son yelps—and, as we later learn, she’s carted to the hospital for an emergency mastectomy.
So much for the title of Bosoms and Neglect, John Guare’s screwy play of black New York Irish humor, now onstage at the Aurora. The title’s easily explained. But “the matter”—that is, the dialogue and action, and the story material that zig-zags, relentlessly back and forth—constitutes another question, or bunch of questions, altogether.
John Guare’s plays—and this one dates from the late ’70s—have been called “semi-absurd,” like a pair of oddly polished saddleshoes, which Scooper seems to be wearing. Guare has talked about his “war with the kitchen sink,” though in his burlesqued domestic dramas, the sink seems to be stopped up—or something’s crawling out of it.
In this case the creature is ostensibly Henny, though it may really be her son, considering the narrative he pours out to Deirdre (Beth Wilmurt), a kind of comfort station and book-bombardier for famous authors (if her own story makes any sense), in her apartment, above and across the street from her and Scooper’s adored psychiatrist, where she can watch the comings and goings.
Actually, though the psych’s waiting room should have provided the stage for their meeting (and Deirdre avers she spent much time and anguish trying to attract Scooter’s attention), it’s just that morning they’ve collided for real, outside a mutually favored bookstore, where Scooper’s picked her up—or thinks he has—for a bit of chat and solace on the day he’s been planning to run away with his friend and business partner’s wife to Haiti, a steamy tropical retreat from New York, itself steaming into August.
What gradually erupts—the dialogue and action are jerky and self-contradictory—is a frenetic mating dance, played out across a couple of sofa-daybeds, syncopated with a kind of demented literary or psychiatric coitus interruptus, one-upmanship with the names of authors or syndromes to send off as teasers.
It all ends in mayhem, with Scooper joining Henny in the hospital for a filial chat, though no repose, soon to be joined by Deirdre, who joins forces with the man she lacerates in yet another quest for a Freudian slip, while blind Henny, unaware she’s alone, tells the true tale of Scooper’s recurring primal scene and the secret of his real name.
Black humor is a tough thing to flesh out onstage, continually pushing the envelope until even the postman bursts out in laughter at the overload. And Guare’s special, regional branch of it (something related can be seen in Philip Kaufman’s hilarious parody of juvenile delinquent movies and postwar nostalgia in general, The Wanderers, set in The Bronx) demands a kind of careless exactitude, an off-the-cuff delivery of true gravity, with the fingers crossed on both hands folded behind the back.
Joy Carlin is a fine director of actors, and Cassidy Brown and—especially—Beth Wilmurth contribute what’s easily for both of them among their finer characterizations.
But it doesn’t quite come off. Brown’s whimsical, palatized accent begins to drone, and the cavorting he and Wilmurth do is nutty and amusing, but the play demands a little more than demonstrable eccentricity or today’s common coin in humor, quotidian silliness. The zaniness throws off Guare’s strange rhythms, and the dialogue and story take on the consistency of pudding, with these crazy borough Irish characters relegated to merely surveying the linguistic bog they caper on.
Only Joan Mankin, at start and finish, provides the bass line that makes it a fugue, indeed. Her characterization is clearly reflected in the funhouse mirror of Henny’s crabbed consciousness—and conscience. It’s right in the heart of that true form of Pirandellian humor that apprehends “what’s there instead of what’s supposed to be there” versus the conflating of deliberate, self-serving illusion with reality, only to come back around and drive the obtuse point home.
BOSOMS AND NEGLECT
8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and at 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays through July 22 at Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addision St. $38. 843-4822. www.aurotatheatre.org.