In John Patrick Shanley's The Big Funk, parents are the root of all dysfunction. The play's four main adult characters have each developed elaborate mechanisms to compensate for their mundanely inadequate upbringing. They think they understand themselves. They think they've figured out how to operate in a normal adult society. Trouble is, at least two of them, as they repeatedly say, "hate this fucking society," and none of them have quite figured out how to interact on a level beyond that of overgrown, petulant children.
That's the serious part of the play. Lest you get the idea that you're in for 90 minutes of psychobabble--though there's no shortage of that--rest assured that you'll also encounter a woman, svelte in the morning, being told in the afternoon that she's pregnant with twins and will deliver the next day; a man who carries a family-size jar of Vaseline in a plain paper bag, ready at any time to apply it toward someone's humiliation; another man who dons a drip-dry suit in order to give a woman he's just met a nice bath; and, most ridiculous of all, a woman, not a toy poodle, named Fifi.
Oh, and each character comes out at the beginning and gives a little monolog, not just breaking down the stage's imaginary fourth wall but climbing over the rubble and sitting down to chat with individuals in the audience, then arguing with each other over who's really the hero of the play.
Clearly, Shanley had been reading his Pirandello before writing this 1990 work. Yet there's nothing derivative about the way his characters grapple with theatrical artifice in their struggle to find some sort of authenticity in life. And despite the characters' periodic problems with communication, The Big Funk is getting a wonderfully articulate production in Live Theatre Workshop's late-night Etcetera series.
Director Howard Allen (a long-ago Tucson Weekly editor) has elected to play down the script's absurdist aspects, and offers an oddly but effectively naturalistic presentation. There's still a lot of funny stuff and silly stuff here, but Allen clearly doesn't want it to overshadow the play's serious message. Oh, yes, there's a message in there, amid the knife throwing and Vaseline-smearing, but don't think any less of the play for that.
A plot summary probably will not induce you to see this very rewarding show. Let's see ... after each of the four principals presents a little introductory monolog explaining why he or she is screwed up and how it's become possible to cope, we find knife-thrower Omar (Stephen Frankenfield) at home with his wife, Fifi (Holli Henderson), practicing his act. But suddenly he's unable to hit his target (which is not, by the way, Fifi; some audience members in the back row may want to duck at this point in the story). Omar figures, as he might sing if this were West Side Story, that something's coming. There is something due any day; he will know right away, soon as it shows. Turns out later that what starts to show is Fifi, and the twins are due the following afternoon.
But for now, Omar thinks it has to do with his friend Austin (Matt Walley), an unemployed actor. And indeed, Austin soon meets up with Jill (Sybille Bruun), who fancies herself the villain of the play, and of life in general. Not that she's proud of it; this is a self-esteem issue. She's just had a nasty session with a stranger (Jonathan Northover) who's told her, quite brutally, what she believes to be the truth about herself, and has gone on to smear Vaseline all over her face, a symbol of Jill's filth and degradation, etc.
Austin takes Jill home and, in a non-sexual, Christlike gesture, gives her a bath, then takes her to dinner with Omar and Fifi. This threatens to become a last supper of sorts, for Omar is in a foul mood, now that he realizes that the twins will inevitably replace their parents in the great scheme of things. People behave badly, and rare steaks are served with red wine of an unnatural hue. But in the end, Austin saves the day, and perhaps a few souls, by striding around buck naked, holding up a mirror in which the others can see themselves.
The fact that in the play's last moment he assumes the robe and gestures of an early saint could lead you to believe that this is some sort of Christian allegory. Go ahead and believe that if it makes you feel better about buying tickets to see Sybille Bruun and Matt Walley without any clothes on. Believe whatever you want about this play, because it leaves itself open to analysis, the characters not being entirely articulate when they arrive at the truth. There is, however, something essential and affecting there, waiting for you to perceive it, and its intellectual weight is supported by appealing cushions of absurdity--and I don't mean souvenir pillows from Niagara Falls.
This is, in short, an excellent play, despite Shanley's never doing anything very interesting with Fifi, and the cast certainly makes it worth staying up late for. Bruun is always very good with understated irony and profound sadness, two things that make her Jill very sympathetic. Walley brings a perfect balance of eagerness and befuddlement to the role of Austin, and Frankenfeld's Omar seems hard and potentially dangerous without being unlikable. (Not that an actor's job is necessarily to make us like his character.) Last weekend, trouper Henderson performed despite being under the weather; aside from her hoarseness, you'd never have known, unless illness somehow helped her invest the role with greater serenity than she might have found otherwise.
The Big Funk--that is, the existential fear that prevents us from accomplishing anything in life while we wait for doom to strike--could have been pretentious or stupid or both. Instead, it's both thought provoking and amusing. And that bathtub is really something.