Love's Labors

What is it about new plays and poets who live in the East Village? What is it about plays that love video? The answer may be Aristotelian in nature -- young playwrights have grown up so completely under the influence of TV that they can't write anything that doesn't include either a weird reverence for its power or a condemnation of its annihilating evil. Or something like that.

These thoughts occur to me after seeing The Monogamist, New Heights Theatre's production of Christopher Kyle's latest play, which premiered only last November at Playwrights Horizons in New York (and landed a coveted place in American Theatre's centerfold new play series). The show, which situates marriage in the context of cable access TV, poetry, fidelity and love, has a fascination with media, and a particularly slick surface, thanks to all the hot topics for our vainglorious post-modern age that it throws around: representation, deconstruction and the almost neurotic compulsion to assess everything from an intellectual rather than an emotional perspective. But if his characters have acquiesced to soullessness, Kyle himself certainly has not. Using the songs of Ray Charles and '60s funk to resonate under the scene changes, the playwright has pointed to the blues without pounding the message home. The music is the perfect backdrop for a play about a marriage that lacks a center.

Ray Charles' grooviness leads us into the insulated world of New Yorkers Dennis and Susan. They're both in their late thirties; he's a poet and she's a women's studies professor at Princeton. They met while working in the Carter campaign and fell into liberal love bliss, shacked up together for 15 years and finally married six months before the play begins. The play splits time between Princeton and the East Village, where Dennis alternates between his studio and a cable access show, Poetry Beat.

Having just finished a book of poems titled Nocturnal Perambulations, Dennis is interviewed on Poetry Beat by Jasmine Stone, a former graduate student of his. Amidst other social anthropological rantings, Stone suggests that it's Susan who is truly responsible for her husband's poetry. This notion sends the hopelessly self-involved Dennis into a funk, and he begins to question both his worth as a poet and his general relevance to the world.

What anchors The Monogamist is the gritty dialogue between Susan and Dennis, which is made believably poignant by both Michelle McCarel (Susan) and Lynn Miller (Dennis). Their marriage is, quite clearly, the heart of the play. As it teeters on the verge of collapse, every move either party makes to reconcile their problems sends it nearer the brink. Kyle knows the audience will always pull for the impossible, and that what the audience wants from the beginning is for the marriage to work out. That doesn't happen, but the journey into the abyss turns out to be a pretty good ride.

As so often happens in marriage (and in plays), an offhand suggestion becomes a catalyst for disaster. When the lights first come up on Dennis and Susan's bedroom, he is lamenting his marginal status in American poetry, and she is laughing about a male student, Tim, in her feminist literature class who touts the chauvinist pig's point of view. What might be a flashing neon sign in another situation (Susan asks what Dennis' reaction would be if she slept with someone else) is ignored, and the evening ends with Susan going to bed and Dennis working through his angst by leaving for his studio.

The scene then shifts to Susan in bed with the very young and very Republican Tim (Travis Ammons). Alas, the under-thirty crowd will have a bone to pick with Kyle's dialogue here. Sorry, but Gen X doesn't intone "totally" or "bitchin' " as Tim often does. That was the '80s, folks. Even with this incongruity, what comes out of Tim's mouth is the play's Cassandra-like voice of reason: he astonishes Susan by telling her precisely what she wants. The scenes between Tim and Susan are funny and uncomfortable enough to be real. "Do you want to do it again?" Tim asks Susan breathlessly. "You're very young, aren't you?" she replies.

Though watching the handsome Miller strut and foam out his work-related angst as Dennis isn't much of a chore, listening to his articulation sometimes is. Miller's voice is deep and resonant, but it booms forth without precision or form. His diction is muddy, and his lines often hard to catch. The production's stellar performance comes from Roxanna Raja as Sky, Dennis' own Gen X answer to Tim. Her long, dark hair and expressive face equally in play as she panthers around Dennis, she is the more genuine of the two Gen Xers. Encouraged by Dennis to "join something," she ponders Greenpeace (because it would drive her mother insane) and Act Up. "Do you think people will think I'm a lesbian if I join Act Up?" she asks Dennis. "I don't care, I just want to know what to wear."

Still, the play's center is the relationship between Dennis and Susan. It's the strength of their scenes together that holds the audience's attention. As Dennis, who wants to tape every conversation because it "gives him clues later," Miller grows convincingly further and further removed from reality. As Susan, McCarel is engaging, though her best acting comes in an unexpectedly lovely scene with Sky, who counsels her through a difficult moment.

If music is the food of love, then the main course for The Monogamist is Ray Charles' "Don't Set Me Free." More of a warning than a love song, it, like the play, tells us not to ask for what we fear, because we just might get it. With this modern and unexpected glimpse into the heart of a marriage gone wrong, New Heights has a somewhat uneven production on its hands, but one well worth an evening's attention.

The Monogamist plays through June 29 at Heights Theater, 339 West 19th Street, 869-9933.

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Megan Halverson