More Than A Cadillac

You are walking down the street here in New York and a car cuts you off in the crosswalk as it turns left. You were there, you had the right of way, the car just very nearly mows you down, and as it drives through the intersection, you catch the driver’s eye. He looks right at you, as if to say, “what are you gonna do about it?”

As you walk away, furious, even just for a moment, you might start thinking about that guy’s perspective on life. How did he get to the point where making that left turn was more important to him than the general welfare of regular people, how did his own personal very-small-thing become more important than our community?

As I was watching the utterly engrossing production of When You Coming Back, Red Ryder by Retro Productions, my mind slid away from the horror show for only a brief moment because I was remembering a report that I’d read some time last year, something about the suicide rate of returning veterans. I just looked it up again and it’s astonishing. In 2005, there were 8 suicides for every 100,000 civilians… but 32 suicides for every 100,000 active veterans between 20 and 24.

I have argued in the past that it’s way more important for us to talk about each other’s shows and the ideas contained than it is for us to just slob up each other’s shows in the hopes that they will do the same for us. This production deserves a ton of slobbing, and I’ll do it in a minute, but walking away from the show, there were a bunch of larger things boiling in my tiny brain.

There is an inherent dismissal in saying that we live in a culture full of niceities, full of informal politenesses that keep things running smoothly. The truth is, most of the common courtesies we have in place are there in order for us to remain *safe*, to remain alive at all. We shake each other’s hands upon meeting to show our friends that we’re not hiding a large rock to hit them with, we stay to one side when we walk because we’re instinctively aware that we’re safer with one flank covered. It progresses from there.

We have rules even for rule breaking. Americans are furious right now that we are responsible, as a nation, for torture. Shooting an enemy in the face is part of our civil code, but making them go without sleep is just wrong. When someone robs you, you expect them to hold a weapon, take your stuff, and then go about their lives. We reserve our outrage for rape or humiliation or “senseless killing” (as if to delineate them from the sensible ones.)

Red Ryder is deeply absorbed with looking at these situations. It begins as a very standard piece, a diner in the middle of New Mexico, with a handful of employees and patrons, is held up. Stuff of drama, certainly, but this isn’t Bonnie and Clyde. It’s 1969, and when the thieves walk in, all we know about them is this – they aren’t following protocol, they are unwilling to behave. And that alone is the weapon they, or rather *he*, uses to terrorize the group. The antagonist of the play holds everyone hostage with the fact that he is willing to behave worse than they are, and perhaps worse than they can imagine.

As the group of people finds their situation degenerating quickly, as decorum falls, leaf by leaf, until the cultural tree is completely nude, they find themselves becoming not just passive objects, but willing subjects in the crazed mind of this long haired Vietnam Vet. As a nod to the cultural mores of the time, one character says, “I thought you were all about peace and love” and the vet says, pensively, “No… No, sir, that was a different group altogether…”

My favorite exchange, which I took for the title, is when the Vet is mocking the people’s lack of fortitude to resist him. He says that a man needs to have more than a Cadillac to be a man, and says “I’m sorry to have to show you that”. Another character asks, simply, “Are you really sorry?” and the Vet says, again almost to himself, “… No. No, but I wish I was.”

It’s an amazing piece.

I’ll get to some slobbing now, I’d hate to rhapsodize without giving some people some damned credit. The costumes tell a silent story, perfectly matched to the plot. Red Ryder himself is dressed in the perfect James Dean faux rebellion, complete with idiotic tattoo on his arm. That this play was produced in 1973 is a miracle, how the hell did the writer know that within 30 years, tattoos would be as inauthentic a form of rebellion as a white tee shirt and red jacket with the collar turned up?

The rest of the costumes are pitch perfect, moustaches and buns on the east coast elite, bolo ties or tank tops signifying all you need to know about the character’s stations, but there are two things I’d like to point out, as long as I’m writing a novel here. The hippy girl’s breasts figure into the script, but instead of being too overt, she wears a thin shirt and no bra. As a guy who gets uncomfortable with stage nudity, it was perfect. I think I’m gonna save the waitress costume for later…

As full disclosure, I’m friends with the director, Ric Sechrest, but as my friends can tell you, that won’t stop me from saying awful things about them. In this case, I was knocked out by the work Sechrest did. The play hinges on the balance between control and disarray, and the playing space is very small. He created these invisible buffers, these very tight physical spaces that people were either allowed in or not, and then he shattered those spaces when the script called for it. Honestly, the bravest thing he did was to trust us and the space. There were people sitting with their backs to us, and delivering the occasional line upstage, and he knew it would work. There are a lot of people being acted upon in this play, and it would be very easy for the piece to become passive, but everyone has a reason for everything they do, all the time. You can watch the ancillary characters and see an entire play unfolding.

I probably don’t need to say much about the set because it is clearly a standout among theaters of this size. It was incredibly articulate, perfectly functional and honestly, one of the best I’ve seen in an off-off house. I think only GroundUp Productions is comparable. I particularly like that, behind the flats, waaaay upstage, you can see the diner sign, barely illuminated, backwards.

In talking about the actors, I probably also don’t need to say much about Christoper Patrick Mullen. If you know me, I tend to expect the large roles, the difficult to memorize and even harder to physicalize roles, to be played not just well, but brilliantly, and Mullen doesn’t disappoint. He is terrifying, nauseating and trippingly crackling, like a blowtorch in the wrong hands. And a blowtorch is actually the perfect description, because he underplays so much of the show, letting the lines be the lines, letting the AUDIENCE do a lot of the work. Mullen knows that we desperately want the character to go away, and so he controls Teddy, he lets him swerve back into line just to give us a breather. It’s a master class in how to turn a set-chewing character into something at least a little human.

David Blais as Richard, Dave Koenig as Clark and Richard Waddingham as Lyle all do great work, it’s so difficult to play characters where the whole damn play is happening AT you, where you have almost no chance for catalyst. Blais could easily have played his college educated kept-man with derision and he instead fought for the guy every step of the way. And Waddingham, who is naturally far larger a presence than any of the other actors, managed to create a small man, desperately h
olding on to his own decency. Cassandera Lollar also crafts an active but understated character in Cheryl, the clinging assistant to our antagonist.

I don’t want to single out Ben Schnickel as Stephen (Red Ryder) because he did fine work and it’s an extremely difficult part, but this is one of those Juliet conundrums. The character might be younger than the actor has to be to play it well. I also hate to say I wasn’t moved quite as much by Matilda Szydagis as Clarisse. In both cases, I felt that they were one step outside the play, and I understand it – to be completely in this play in these characters is a kind of hell. I’m loathe to say this, because both of them did some great work, and I’d be excited to see them in any future productions.

Just a word on Heather Cunningham…

I have mocked myself and others like me in the off-off world for camouflaging our solipsism as “do-it-yourself independence”. When I hear of an all male version of “Proof” or something, I immediately assume that the producers are also the stars, and I’m almost never wrong. It isn’t always a bad thing, but it isn’t usually good. When I got to the end of this play and read the program and saw the bios… I realized that sometimes, it’s the best thing.

She is a gut-punch of an actor. Completely without concern for herself when she’s in character, utterly subsumed by the demands of the script. But I know she was also at every step of the process, the sets, the props, everything… including picking the piece.

Now, there are a lot of companies out there trying to figure out a way to sell tickets, and that’s great. You oughta sell some tickets. And a lot of people have figured out a) established writers bring in more audience, b) established plays bring in more audience, c) small cast sizes are easier to produce… they’ve figured out a lot of this stuff.

So, if you’re Retro Productions, and you are making your decision, why not “Children of a Lesser God”? It’s the same writer, it’s far better known, the set is *nothing*, the cast is smaller… why not?

I don’t personally know why not, but I can tell you why I’m glad they didn’t. This play, with the conversation about the devastating effects of war, not just on those fighting it over there, but the effect those soldiers have on us once they get back, the discussion of Rural America vs. Urban America, the look at the violent destruction of the false culture we’d propped up in the 50s… THIS play is relevant to us, to New York Theater, to Americans.

So Cunningham picked a play where her character is humiliated a hundred different ways, and she lot herself in it. Knowing, as I do, the number of things she would have had to do on a daily and nightly basis, before and during rehearsals, before and during the performance each day, made me love her performance even more in retrospect.

And look, I know, I have a thing I do when I see plays. I watch the ancillary characters more than the scene stealing ones, I want to know what an actor can do when given only *some* of what she or he needs. But the fact is, Cunningham’s character Angel becomes the person we identify with. She is who we would be, if we were in the play.

It is a marvelous night of theater. On a personal note, I feel so lucky to be here in the city when so many people are coming in to their own, so many of us that have been here for this awful decade. There was a time when I’d go see stuff just to get out of the house, and I started wondering if I wouldn’t be better off watching TV. RIght now, I wish the week was ten days long, just so I could see more of what the OFF-OFF community is doing.