Review by Lucian McMahon
I doubt anyone has ever confused punk with sensitivity. “I killed a baby today and it doesn’t matter much to me, as long as it’s dead,” said Glenn Danzig. “I raped your mother today and it doesn’t matter much to me, as long as she’s spread.”
There is much ado about killing and raping in Seanie Sugrue’s “Love is Dead!”, a dramatic experiment in what Sugrue has dubbed “punk theater”, produced by Lost in the Attic and the 13th Street Repertory Company.
Meant to be a dark comedy of sorts, the play is staged in three loosely-connected acts. The first involves Trevor (Brian Patrick Murphy), who claims he was raped by two female prostitutes. He seeks solace in his parents, Walter and Betsy (John Warren and Mary Tierney), who do not believe him, thinking that he is looking for yet another excuse for cheating on his wife, Ginger (Dina Massery). He subsequently murders Ginger when she threatens to leave him.
The second act offers us an abusive relationship, from which Cindy (Olivia Howell) seeks to escape into the arms of “Two Minute” Kenneth (Chris Gentile). Her violently timorous (and, of course, unfaithful) beau, Eugene (Patrick Brian Scherrer), prevents her from doing so in murderous fashion. Eugene is abetted in his undertakings by Cindy’s friend, Nancy (Ashton Foster).
The third and last act presents an impoverished prostitute, Maggie (Hannah Jane McMurray) and her friend, a pet goldfish named Francis (“Frank”). Here we witness both the climax and denouement of the play, when Maggie’s sexually abusive father, Daddy (Myles O’Connor) pays her a visit under the pretext of dragging her to a rehab center. She kills him. She also kills Trevor, to whom she had been offering her services. And lastly she kills Eugene, who tried to force her into sexual servitude.
Nonetheless, the play contained all the ingredients to make for an excellent production. The acting, in particular, was stellar on all fronts, with several familiar faces from Sugrue’s past productions making well-rendered appearances. Scherrer shone as the sociopathic cretin abusing women in retribution for his sexual inadequacies. Warren was especially entertaining as a cantankerous, alcoholic husband and emotionally-unavailable father.
But McMurray was the highlight of the night. Her Maggie was distraught, powerful, desperate, violent, tragic, sorrowful, unforgiving. She showed us what it means to have been traumatized, to have sublimated that trauma, and to have, ultimately, found redemption in sacrifice and revenge. McMurray took what little the material had to offer and ran with it, creating a complex character on a stage littered with the obvious.
Which is why the production, taken as a whole, fell flat: the play itself was not particularly compelling, struggling as it did to transcend its clichéd representation of shallow characters. Brilliant acting alone does not make a play.
If the play was meant to push our boundaries and probe the dark underbelly of humanity, it failed – and not for a paucity of boundaries to push. Violence, sexual abuse, misogyny, dishonesty, insanity: these are topics ripe for exploration – perhaps especially of the darkly comedic sort. And to explore them we need to be pushed beyond our comfort zone.
But “Love is Dead!” doesn’t push. It exaggerates to the point of meaninglessness.
Using exaggeration as a tool to dig into the darkest corners of the human psyche and human experience is nothing new. Some writers have been able to wield exaggeration and distension to lure out the complexity of human issues to great effect. But that’s precisely the trick of it: deliberately creating subtly out of gross distortion. And to make this effect funny is an even more difficult exercise.
“Love is Dead!” exaggerates, but there is nothing underneath. There is no further meaning to elicit out of the actions on the stage – not to mention laughs. The play comes at every nail of the human experience with a hammer, beating the expected point home with characters that you’ve probably come across in countless movies and books.
Daddy, the hypocrite Christian with a southern accent (because obviously) who rapes his daughters and beats his wife while quoting the Bible? “Two Minute” Kenneth, the founder of a non-profit to combat domestic violence who can’t keep his pants on? These are poorly-drawn cartoons – and not particularly funny ones, if it’s true that the essence of comedy lies in the frustration of expectation. I found myself thinking “of course” when the former began quoting 1 Corinthians and the latter couldn’t hide his naked concupiscence for even a second.
It is a stage populated with unimaginative, tired tropes pretending to have something to say about disaffection and brutality. These are not people suffering, not even laughably – these are heavy-handed caricatures, automata lurching about according to the predictable algorithms of an unserious conception of the human experience. A stilted puppet show of unfeeling, unthinking cardboard cutouts that exist only to represent whatever singular, unsubtle trait of depravity Sugrue has, for whatever reason, deemed worthy to present to his audience.
Less an artful imitation of life, more a nihilistically violent game of the Sims.
Perhaps this is all some form of “punk”, rawly understood. But it isn’t true to the raw, dirty life that I cannot help but think the play is meant to comment on.
And the insane, depraved characters in “Love is Dead!” are just that: insane. They do nothing to force us to confront our own raw, dirty humanity. We live in a world that isn’t exclusively populated by unscrupulous and murderous sociopaths. We live in a world in which normal people can be unscrupulous and murderous. A world in which a white police officer can shoot a black teenager in the back, go home, and lovingly kiss his wife and kids good night.
The world is an ugly, messy place. It may be insane, but only insofar as it is sane people doing insane things. Staging a production wherein insane people do insane things does little to force us to confront the dark issues that Sugrue wants us to. At least Tierney and Warren’s bickering couple proffered us a couple of the promised laughs.
But therein lies the promise of a production such as “Love is Dead!” – and Sugrue himself. Sugrue is passionate. He can write. He can be funny. And he is supported by an excellent cast, which can spark the flashes of brilliance lurking in the play’s dialogue. But these flashes of brilliance are all too often brusquely snuffed out by the play’s literary and dramatic flaws.
In this case, these flaws are not the function of a bad writer. They are the function of a good writer who hasn’t taken the care to make his writing great. In an interview with Review Fix earlier this year, Sugrue said that his creative process “looks something like this: Book the theater, spend the next several days lying on the kitchen floor, in the dark, listening to depressing Christmas songs, and then write the play.”
I believe Sugrue will eventually write and produce the plays he wants to be producing. He’s not quite there yet. Perhaps he needs to begin to think of himself less as an Artist who frenetically – and, it seems, incidentally – wants to make art and more as an incidental artist who makes Art.
Good punk is not always what it appears to be. Paradoxically, under the anarchy and chaos is a message, a message which waits to be found. “Love is Dead!” thrusts the message upon us, dead on arrival.