During the pandemic, correspondents for Plays international & Europe were obliged to focus on different national reactions to the pandemic-driven shutdowns of theatres. We now return cautiously to reports on live theatrical events, even those from the past. The two productions described below were produced at Yale Rep in late 2019, before the shutdown. They showcase two unusual American plays by American playwrights Will Eno and Mary Kathryn Nagle. They will undoubtedly be produced many times in the post-pandemic future.
Will Eno was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in Drama in 2005 for Thom Pain (based on nothing), he received a Drama Desk Special Award for The Realistic Joneses and the Obie Award for Playwriting for The Open House in 2014. Mary Kathryn Nagle is a lawyer, playwright, citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and the executive director of the Yale Indigenous Performing Arts Program.
Robert Schneider in Connecticut at Yale Repertory Theatre
1 September 2020
Will Eno, as the expression goes, has legs. His previous play at Yale Rep, The Realistic Joneses, legged it all the way to Broadway (if only for a moment), and Gnit, his comic take on the Henrik lbsen classic Peer Gynt, had an abbreviated run this spring at New York City’s Theatre for a New Audience before the virus shut it down. Meanwhile, his earlier work Thom Pain (based on nothing) has acquired a ﬁlm version which Eno co-directed in 2017.
His new play commissioned by Yale Rep, The Plot, riffs on three different meanings of “plot”: theatrical, conspiratorial, and mortuary. ln it we meet an elderly couple, an abrasive real estate developer and his assistant, a landscape architect, and – brieﬂy a ghost.
The character Righty, an elderly man with Alzheimer’s (Harris Yulin) who wanders off on unannounced jaunts, gravitates to a nearly abandoned cemetery where he likes to sit and listen to the sounds of nature (furnished in this production by sound designer Emily Duncan Wilson). His long-suffering wife (Mia Katigbak) ﬁnds him there and learns to her alarm that he purchased a plot for himself without consulting her. The plot — the dramaturgical one — thickens when it’s revealed that a real estate developer (Stephen Barker Turner) and his mistress and right-hand woman (Jennifer Mudge) have designs on the cemetery: they want to turn it into a train-to-truck transfer station.
Harris Yulin and Mia Katigbak in The Plot. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.
It’s somehow typical of Eno that the project is banal and utilitarian: “Just a bunch of buildings and driveways” rather than something yuppie-ish like condominiums or a golf course. Eno doesn’t need extra symbolism; he’s got more than enough baked into his language. Nor is he outraged about the disappearance of the natural world like Chekhov’s Astrov. Eno’s subject is opportunity. There’s an opportunity to turn a disaffected cemetery into a rail link; the opportunity is neither noble nor squalid — it’s simply there. All his characters have opportunities to take or to reject — whether in their relationships to one another or in the plot of land in question. None of the outcomes is predictable. The pithiest comments on mortality and memory don’t come from the man who is approaching life’s end but from a vigorous real estate man who exhumes bodies and moves tombstones. Meanwhile, the most astute business moves come not from the businessman but from the man who seems to have no memory.
Eno’s universe is generally fatal. Every exchange in The Plot is parboiled in mortality and reticence-before-the-grave. The characters undertake conversation as defusing a bomb. They seem hesitant even when stating their names, as if fearing to be contradicted. Lines of dialogue slide off each other, not quite meeting head-on. Conversation often comes to a deliberate stop, an effect that Eno likes to flag. He also makes his characters inveterate critics of their own lines and the lines they hear:
I know. But, just remember … yeah, the world is the world. I was going to say something different but actually I think that was pretty good. Ciao. (Exits)
I suppose all playwrights fear that their characters will suddenly have nothing to say, but Eno takes that anxiety as his subject, shoehorning it into every interaction:
TIM (Looking at gravestones)
I know our relationship is a little muddy.
It is, isn’t it. But it feels good just to acknowledge it. (Very brief pause) Were you going to say something else?
No, that was the full remark. “Our relationship is a little muddy.”
Manahatta. Steven Flores and Rainbow Dickerson. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.
Harris Yulin has terriﬁc presence in the role of a man whose mind is absent — or so it appears. Stephen Barker Turner plays Tim the real estate developer with a wilful and seemingly arbitrary aggressiveness, the same quality Chekhov gave Solyony in Three Sisters but Tim doesn’t have Solyony’s tormenting jealousy. His nastiness is existential. While Eno’s characters often wander, this one goes through life on rails; he ﬁnds it easier to collide with people than to change course. Jennifer Mudge plays his wire-pulling assistant with discrete packets of frustration that are visible but left unspoken.
All in all, there are lots of atmospherics in The Plot. Lots of dot, dot, dot. Eno sets us searching for insights that turn out to be hiding in plain sight, buried not quite as deeply as we thought – and not in a grave, though graves there are aplenty.
The bucolic but unbeautiful cemetery was designed by Sarah Karl with lighting by Evan C. Anderson. Oliver Butler directed.
Mary Kathryn Nagle’s Manahatta, also at Yale Rep, is a very clever play whose seven characters in the early twenty-ﬁrst century turn out to have nearly perfect analogues in the early seventeenth century.
Jane Snake, an MIT graduate in mathematics and a perfect whizz at selling mortgage-backed securities for Wall Street wampum, has a remote Wampanoag ancestor who was good at trading beaver pelts for the type of wampum that’s made from seashells. Jane Snake has an admirer, a young man who drops by her ofﬁce on slender pretexts. It turns out he’s a dead-ringer for an Indian warrior who came hunting for Dutch invaders on the exact same spot during the Peach Tree War of I655, one of the ﬁrst concerted attempts by natives to push the white devils out of New England. Jane Snake has a boss in the corner ofﬁce, and he is an almost perfect reincarnation of Peter Minuit, the governor of New Amsterdam. Nagle implies that modernity didn’t wipe out Native American culture on the island called “Manahatta”. Rather, it gave that culture concrete form if you’ll forgive the pun.
Harris Yulin and Jennifer Mudge in The Plot. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.
Manahatta lets us understand that the 2008 ﬁnancial meltdown triggered by those pesky mortgage-backed securities that Jane sells was a replay of Peter Minuit’s 1628 “purchase” of Manhattan for an assortment of axes, knives, and blankets. In both cases the “buyers” over-played their hand and the “sellers” were cheated. The parallel is driven home by the actors who double: Lily Gladstone (as the multi-talented Jane Snake) is always a shark, whether she’s selling skins or securities; Jeffrey King is the man in charge, whether as head of Lehman Bros or as the governor of a colony; and Danforth Comins seems destined to be his deputy in both centuries.
Occasionally Nagle gets a bit too cute, as when the Dutch introduce the Indians to brandy (“the greatest spirit ever distilled”) and the Indians understand “great spirit” in religious terms.
After the Robert Lepage-Ariane Mnouchkine debacle in Montreal with Kanata, a play about Native Americans that had no Native Americans in the cast, Yale Rep made a point of casting Indians to play Indians. A sign in the lobby even acknowledges that the land under the theatre was wrongfully appropriated from the ﬁrst inhabitants of the continent. A note in the programme explains that costumes and props for the play were made respectfully from modern materials.
“Respect” seems to be a new currency when issues of cultural appropriation arise; it’s a bit like Wampum but less tangible and has no exchange value. Theatres can’t win at this game. Anything they do will be either too phony to satisfy devotees of ancient cultures or too real to avoid charges of desecration. In New England, at least, theatre and respectability are still worlds apart.
Manahatta teaches us a bit of the Lenape language spoken by the original inhabitants, an oral language of 17,000 words that — as the play acknowledges —can’t translate European notions of “commerce, economics, or ownership.” The play makes the Indians out to be romantic, prelapsarian socialists who had the necessary brains and fortitude to compete with Europeans if only their language had given them the conceptual tools to do so. It seems likely that Lenape would have vanished even if the Indians had been allowed to remain, for the European conquest was mental as well as military.
Multiple trails of tears forced the Wampanoag from Manahatta to Pennsylvania, then on to Ohio, Texas, and ﬁnally to Oklahoma. Nagle’s play laments this injustice, but it has aspects that are comedic. Jane Snake sells securities on a street which takes its name from a structure built to keep her ancestors out of New Amsterdam. She visits her mother (Carla-Rae as Bobbie) in the Oklahoma town where a bank is foreclosing on the family home: unable to comprehend “commerce, economics, or ownership”, her mother has defaulted on a $47,000 mortgage. In front of the astonished banker, Jane writes a cheque for the entire amount. It would have been still more amusing if she’d bought his bank at the same time, especially as it is run by an unctuous lay preacher (T. Ryder Smith) who’s the doppelganger of the seventeenth-century pastor the Dutch imported to teach the Indians about God. (Inanely and ironically, the pastor’s ﬁrst words to the Indians are “You’ve been saved!”)
The delicate images painted on Mariana Sanchez’s set are a peek—a-boo tribute to the rocks and trees of “Manahatta”— now you see them, now you don’t. When you don’t see them, you see Mark Holthusen’s bitter-sweet projections and Stephanie Bahniuk’s witty, versatile costumes. Laurie Woolery directed.