Matthew Senie, a recent graduate of American University’s MA program in philosophy, showcased two of his plays, running in reparatory this past weekend. While outwardly dissimilar, both dealt with questions of merging our different selves into a cohesive wholeness.
These were plays discussing big ideas…
The first, ‘Paint,’ explores the relationship between Lola and Jim, two patients at a psychiatric hospital who live together. This is our first clue that something is terribly off—patients of the opposite sex would never live together in the same room, much less be locked into that room except for visits from the psychiatrist. Lola is an artist and Jim is her model. Nor would a doctor, of either sex, enter a patient’s room for therapy. And finally, no institution would allow a patient to have a maul or a palette knife in her room—such things are stringently accounted for.
But the conflict isn’t between doctor and patient; it’s ultimately in Lola’s mind as her fractured personality brings on a crisis. Off to the side of the stage, a young woman sits with her back to the audience working on a painting of Lola and Jim. As the drama progresses, so does the painting, until it is finished. This is not a play with a defined ending; whether Lola ever becomes whole or even survives is uncertain. Jim seems to be constructed wholly in her mind, and as she’s battling her demons, Jim becomes more self-aware that he is disappearing from her paintings and takes steps to rectify that situation. As the stage suddenly plunges into darkness at the end, the actress playing Lola gives one of the most spine-tingling screams I have ever heard.
The second play, “Cats & Kings,” is about three roommates who are each having a crisis one evening. Claude is trying to read the paper, Maya is reading a book, and Esther rushes out with her cat in a carrier. As soon as Esther leaves, Maya starts annoying Claude and eventually gets up to make tea. Claude then reads her a story in the paper about how everything in the world feels pain and flies into an existential crisis about how he is hurting everything in the world. This script had some genuinely funny moments such as when Claude collapses on the rug and then plaintively asks Maya if the rug will hurt less if he lies flat and spreads his weight more evenly, as on thin ice. Maya is something of an enigma; she is very logical when she’s not being annoyingly kittenish and her responses to Claude are off the wall. Periodically, she puts old jazz on the record player and pulls Claude into a dance routine—both actors were quite good at dancing. Then Esther returns with news about the cat and joins Maya and Claude in their existential despair, and drinking. There were lots of little tiny bottles scattered at the end of the play.
The plays were somewhat obtuse in their points of view; patrons not comfortable with very elliptical writing would be bemused by the somewhat self-indulgent crises engendered by the characters. And without any real backstory, it was hard to conjure up much sympathy for any of the characters. In both, the women were fairly attention seeking and self-absorbed, and the kittenish behavior that both Lola and Maya exhibited was stereotypical of women as objects. But this is a young writer and both plays did have a unique sensibility on identity which would be worth developing with more character development. These were plays discussing big ideas but needed more context.
Advisory: Adult language.
Running Time: Approximately two hours with one 10-minute intermission between plays.
“Paint” and “Cats & Kings” played on February 14-16, 2020 at American University. Click here for more information.