- Maryann Nagel, Chuck Richie, and Hinky Binky in Fuddy Meers.
At its best through the decades, Dobama has served as an oasis, refreshing us with many varied and interesting works that would never have made it to our shores without this theater's fortitude. Yet, its negative side is that it loves to roost precariously on New York's cutting edge. Glorying as a basement boutique of the latest in theatrical fashions, it is never more synthetic than when its stable of actors struts its cramped stage, showing off the latest in dysfunctional families and empty cynicism.
Last year, Fuddy Meers was a hot topic of debate in the more trendy Manhattan espresso emporiums. Those with sense dismissed it as an empty theatrical equivalent of a Rubik's cube. Those caught in the Emperor's New Clothes Mode seemed to take it seriously, proclaiming it a work of "comic genius."
Presently, on the Dobama stage, it is spinning out of control, in the manner of a busted merry-go-round. In spite of a first-rate cast, it confirms its position as a play that should not be experienced without qualified nurses in attendance to pass out massive doses of Valium and Dramamine.
In the past, we have withstood the nihilism of Beckett, the pauses of Pinter, the ellipses of Mamet, and several doomed attempts at Shakespeare, but the hyperkinetic pounding of Fuddy Meers defeats us. Its relentless symbolism puts us in a coma and, like its abused heroine, we are left in a state of disorientation.
To elucidate its opaque title, we had to consult our copy of the script. Here, we find that the title refers to the mispronunciation of a stroke victim who is trying desperately to say "funny mirrors." Using stroke-induced malapropisms is just one of the foul ways playwright David Lindsay-Abaire milks mirth. There is also spousal abuse, a schizophrenic puppeteer, and more psychic violence than the film canon of Quentin Tarantino.
Lindsay-Abaire is not the first playwright to attempt to draw humor out of mayhem. In this case, our playwright seems to be able to draw only swamp water out of his well of human depravity.
Through the haze of a migraine, we dimly recall a blur of primary colors, as if set designer Don McBride were trying to design a platform for a "Peanuts" reunion. On this set, wide-eyed Maryann Nagel, pert and fresh as a Gilbert and Sullivan milkmaid, is hurled into a surrealistic maze -- part film noir, part Lewis Carroll. To escape the horror of a drugged-out lout of a son, a cretinous husband, and a Frankenstein-like brother, she finds herself waking up every morning with a fresh case of temporary amnesia.
We, who suffer in silence in the audience, try to resort to the same defense mechanism. The only remnants of our bilious encounter with this work are dim, fuzzy recollections: Our heroine is kidnapped by what, we think, is some form of alien life; there are periodic reversals of fortune; the man with the angry puppet starts to morph into Jackie Gleason; and we suspect a kidnapped lady cop may be the missing Amelia Earhart. All we can be sure of in retrospect is that, if the humor had grown any more vicious, or if the play had deconstructed any faster, no one would have escaped the theater without some form of concussion.
Looking for some explanation for Fuddy Meers's anesthetizing effects, we turn to the words of the defendant -- oops, we mean the playwright: "The characters are recreating themselves, putting on a mask or living in denial, so the play takes on a strange, foggy quality. Memory functions like that." It's a crafty smokescreen, but it's no excuse for an evening of relentless anarchy. Chaos, without moments of grace, makes for a dispiriting experience.
Yet, it is inhumane to abuse a dead horse. During the actual production, to recompense the cast, we fantasized them being rescued and recast in ideal roles that show off their real talents. For instance, Nagel, who plays the abused Claire, has a passionate, ladylike aura that would make her the ideal Anna for The King and I. John Kolibab, as the frantic husband, excels at endearing lugs; we have a vision of him as Big Julie in Guys and Dolls. Listed in the program as "Limping Man," Kirk Brown, a fetching, pop-eyed rogue, was born to essay the Boris Karloff killer in Arsenic and Old Lace. Lissy Gulick, as the stroke-impaired mother, with her charming bravado, would make a fetching Dolly Levi in Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker. Chuck Richie, the mad puppeteer, could hone to hammy perfection any role already assumed by Nathan Lane. Alison Hernan as the sultry killer-cop was born to play Pussy Galore in a musical adaptation of Goldfinger. Brian Bowers, the foul-mouthed son in this play, would make a pedigreed Snoopy in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.
Director Ron Newell applied half a century of piloting skills to keep this deadly meteor from crashing. With his accumulated wisdom and a borrowed pair of pointy ears, he would make an ideal Spock, keeping vengeful beasts out of our solar system.