Two Theater Reviews: Scarcity by Lucy Thurber and Oedipus and the Foul Mess in Thebes by Sean Graney

Scarcity. By Lucy Thurber. Directed by Justin Zeno. Organic Theater Pittsburgh in the Studio Theater at the University of Pittsburgh. With Matt Bonacci, Bridget Carey, Hanna. Hannah McGee, Michael Moats, Meagen Reagle, Jaime Slavinsky, and Michael Young. August 8-18th.

Oedipus and the Foul Mess in Thebes. No Name Players, at Off the Wall Theater, Carnegie, Penna. A world premiere performance of an adaptation from classic Greek dramas by Sean Graney. Directed by Steven Wilson. With Cameron Knight, Ricardo Vila-Roger, Colleen Pulawski, John Garet Stoker, Todd Betker, Patrick Cannon, and Tressa Glover. Music by Ryan McMasters. August 2-17.

Lucy Thurber is currently getting the unusual recognition of having five of her plays produced simultaneously in New York City, in off-Broadway theaters. These are “The Hilltown Cycle.”[] This isn’t a hail-and-farewell to a playwright long past her prime—Thurber is in her 40s. Pittsburghers can have a taste of her quality (20 percent of those productions) at Organic Theater’s Scarcity.

There’s a long history in American theater, extending back at least to the early 20th century, of entertaining the classes with the economic troubles and sexual low- and hi-jinks of the masses, particularly the rural masses, which were exotic to the New York audience. Tobacco Road, which I imagine played as a tale of hillbilly degradation, ran for years. Then on a different plane there’s Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Desire Under the Elms.

Organic’s Scarcity falls on a prurience-to-profundity scale between Tobacco Road and Orpheus Descending. There’s a hint of mystery and fate, in a child’s reading of a Tarot pack and her claim to “see,” but I think that’s a red herring. Mostly it’s a realistic (there IS a kitchen sink) melodrama of people who are hard up and pretty hard to take. There’s considerable sexual heat and tension in the play, much to the credit of the main actors and the directors. The gorgeous Jaime Slavinsky (though she’s in jeans, not in the Daisy Mae shorts featured on the poster) and the almost equally gorgeous Matt Bonacci are the fussing, fighting, and fecking parents of two children, a high school student (Michael Young) and the considerably younger Rachel, the talented Hannah McGee. Michael Moats and Meagan Reagle separately visit this family, drawn in by their separate sexual hungers. The role of Moats’ wife (Bridget Carey), when she shows up, seems written for a sit-com.

What’s new about this play? Perhaps that it’s presented from the point of view of the blue-collar people rather than the idealistic but un-self-knowing school teacher (Meagan Reagle) who’s the stranger who comes to town to set the action in motion. Her mouth, expressing distaste, is something to behold. Her stiffness and clumsy condescension make her a cartoon until…Until she turns into Miss Julie. Michael Young, playing the student in whom she takes an interest, is wonderful in both his eagerness and his contempt. Hannah McGee plays Rachel, one of those preternatural children wiser than anyone around her. When she dealt the Tarot for herself, I feared for her life. Jaime Slavinsky makes Martha sympathetic despite her flaws. The father of the family is not.

There’s a whiff of incest.

And the f-bombs fly.

When I saw the set before the beginning of Scarcity, I thought, uh-oh. Is this supposed to be rural degradation? The Jukes and the Kallikaks? Because they don’t have a k-cup coffee brewer and granite countertops? It looks homey. I didn’t think that when I saw the set of Oedipus and the Foul Mess in Thebes. We seemed to be in a hospital that has gone to the dogs. An IV hangs from a pole. A cupboard is open, revealing packages of bandages. The whole playing area is littered with crumpled papers. An unanswered monitor alarm keeps up an irritating beep.

Finally (the beep goes on) the actors file in, face the audience, sing Stephen Foster’s lovely and melancholy “Hard Times Come Again No More,” and exit. That is all that remains of the Greek chorus lamenting the plague that has struck Thebes. For this play—and play is a good word for it—is a mashup of five ancient plays dealing with the cursed family of Thebes and Sean Graney aims to tell the story by any means necessary: to strip away some elements, like the chorus, and the necessity of having messengers narrate offstage action, and to reimagine it as a mixture of tragedy and farce. (Some exposition is handled simply and frankly by one of the actors in a blue spotlight to speak it.)

Once again we have a dysfunctional family, but these people are much better dressed. Beautifully, in fact, in modern dress, with purple for the royals, including a tailored lilac-colored suit for Creon. And beautifully played. I’ve mentioned Cameron Knight before. He has the resonant voice and presence—and the arrogance—to play King Oedipus and is a hoot as a Muhammed-Ali-like Theban champion. Ricardo Vila-Roger is excellent as the cheesy Creon (literally cheesy—he noshes a bag of Cheetos, called “cheese curds” in the script, through most of the play) and Todd Betker as Polynices. Tressa Glover plays multiple roles well. Colleen Pulawski is astonishing as Jocasta and Antigone: beautiful bearing, expressive eyes, fine line readings. John Garret Stoker is fine in two small roles, and Patrick Cannon’s small turn as Eteokles matches Polynices’ inanity.

A couple of years ago I saw a production that married Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida with Thomas Heywood’s The Iron Age to tell the whole story of the Trojan War. Bad idea, though it had some striking moments. It didn’t last ten years, but it lasted too long. I feared that this play would do the same—not only incorporating all three plays of Sophocles’ Theban cycle (many literature majors will remember Oedipus and Antigone, not so many will remember Oedipus at Colonnus) but also adding material from Aeschylus and Euripides. I was wrong. It’s not quite The Reduced Shakespeare Company, but it dispatches Jocasta and Oedipus’ eyes quite rapidly and moves on to Oedipus and Antigone in exile. And holds our interest for the rest of the evening. (Geekily, I read Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes the morning after I saw it and I can report that Graney’s adaptation is very free—and cunning—indeed.)

Oedipus’ arrogance and Creon’s truckling are established by Oedipus’ repeating “I solved the riddle of the Hellbitch” [the Sphinx] and Creon’s invariably and quickly responding, “And that was terrific”—or “splendid.” That’s farcical. As is Haemon’s, “What is it with this family?” Though it isn’t the Reduced Shakespeare Company, it has in common with RSC that it loves the plays and it nudges them in the ribs from time to time as only a lover can do.

(A shout-out to Don DiGiulio, scenic design, Kate Mitchell, costume design, and Eve Bandi, lighting design.)


Filed under: Arlene Weiner, Prose, Reviews: Performing Arts