Take Finding the Enemy, currently on the boards at the Anthony Bean Community Theater. In this intriguing tale, writer/director John Grimsley leads us into a baleful morass of moral obscurity -- and then takes an almost diabolic delight in abandoning us there.
What's the play about? Well, let me start with a negative: It's not about Katrina. What it is about is not so easy to say. Although there was much I liked about the play -- and much I pondered over afterward -- I'm not sure I could formulate a one-sentence summary. A one-sentence summary is called "high-concept" in Hollywood. It's the fulcrum of the pitch -- potentially worth millions. Sorry, Grimsley. But, then again, Grimsley never seemed to have Tinsel Town in his cross hairs, anyway.
Boy (Michael Martin) and Girl (Raphaelle Oneil) arrive at their small, ratty home (in Chad Talkington's apt set) after a grocery-buying jaunt. They are at virulent odds with one another. They spit out venomous diatribes with a scatological inventiveness.
To say that Girl and Boy live at the edge of hysteria is to indulge in the sort of understatement that might get you jailed for perjury in a court of law. They are penniless, bohemian artists whose emotional state resembles spinning tops that have slowed to a wobble.
Boy, in fact, is often so hysterical that you hope there's not an ax handy. He's a sculptor. He's waiting for payment from an African-American organization for which he did a portrait of Booker T. Washington. The check is meant to pull Boy and Girl out of their destitution. Boy sneers at Girl because she is a performance artist. However, he professes a deep love and need for her.
Girl is a willful, willowy eccentric who can stand her ground against Boy's rages and gives as good as she gets. At times, Oneil lets us see the softer and more simpatico side of this wild child so we can sense the forces pulling the couple together as well as those driving them apart.
Now comes a bizarre twist in this updated La Boheme. These artists are staking their dignity and worth on their art. In the classic version of this bohemian myth, the bad guys are the philistines who do not appreciate artistic expression and want to crush artistic freedom. But in Finding the Enemy, the bad guys turn out to be the African Americans who commissioned the sculpture from Boy. Or so it seems. But, then again, look at that teasing title. Who, in fact, is the enemy? Is there an enemy?
In any case, Grimsley has made Boy a pompous liberal, particularly in the arena of civil rights. He and Girl dread the importunities of their benighted, white racist neighbor Butch (Kevin Hubble), who also throws some narrative curves our way. Welcome to the club, Butch.
Finally, we meet a trio of interesting black characters. Andr (Escalante Lundy) is a musician who collaborates with Girl on her projects. The Rev. Lester (Ernest Pettigrew) stops by to talk with Boy and Girl about the sculpture but tells them little and hands over no check. Cicada Joe (the imposing Wilbert Williams) is the head of the black organization and lays it on the line in a scene that's unpleasant for all concerned and poses more questions than it answers.
Finding the Enemy has its share of surprises. Part of the point of the play is to raise questions. But, the way in which they are raised is, in itself, unusual.
The Doll's House may seem like an odd comparison, but it's apt. Ibsen's 19th century drama begins in a home that appears normal -- a home like those most of the audience members lived in. Then, the injustices that secretly hold this normal home together become visible. The normal home explodes. A radical and scandalous mirror has been held up to nature.
Grimsley shows us a normal abnormal world. A world of bohemian artists. Boy and Girl are struggling, self-indulgent, tormented and, curiously, as self-satisfied as Ibsen's bourgeoisie. We, in the audience, may not know this normal abnormal world from personal experience, but we all know it well enough -- from the infinite versions of the myth -- to have unshakable prejudices about the outcome of the story. But the contemporary bohemian dump explodes as surely as the 19th century bourgeois estate did.
This is a taxing, head-on drama -- not a superficial entertainment. Somewhat draining, somewhat of a brain-teaser.
- In Finding the Enemy, a bohemian couple tangles over their art, bills and racially sensitive project of commissioned art.