A Poster of the Cosmos / The Great Nebula in Orion

Lanford Wilson
Room One Theatre
Above the Arts

Under the title Greenwich Village Above the Arts, Room One Theatre has turned the first floor performance space at The Arts Theatre into a 1960s/1970s café performance venue inspired by New York’s Caffé Cino and La Mama. Here for a month they are presenting a celebration of Lanford Wilson with performances of four of his short plays, three plays in a festival of new writing, late night music gigs and a lunchtime lecture. It opened with this programme of Lanford Wilson plays, both of which had their première at the Circle Rep.

A Poster of the Cosmos

Set in a Manhattan police station interrogation room, this is a monologue of the answers which 36-year-old Tom makes to the unseen policemen who suspect him of murder. He is an ordinary working class man, a night baker: the white dust on his shirt is flour, not what the detectives probably think.

As director, James Kemp (who also plays Tom), uses the song “Which Side Are You On” as a lead into the play, which shows how far the truth can be from stereotypical assumptions fuelled by prior expectations. Tom repeatedly reacts to the comment, “you don’t look like the kinda guy’d do somthin’ like dat,” by pointing out their blind ignorance: “you spend your day in the armpit of the city and you know nothing about people.”

Wilson’s wonderfully natural writing helps Kemp to make Tom vividly alive, what he says, or sometimes stops himself from saying, seems freshly thought with true spontaneity in an engaging performance. Slowly, some of is story emerges, a teenage marriage and a child left behind, a chance meeting, as he came off night shift, with day-worker delivery man Johnny who immediately invited him back to his place. He had three years as roommates with the hyperactive deliveryman who became his lover, before they discovered that Johnny had AIDS.

Tom, himself testing negative, holds dying Johnny in his arms and his subsequent action, feeling guilt at escaping his fate, has led to the current situation.

It is a moving play about the unexpected nature of love and an outcry against those who make automatic assumptions without understanding or compassion and this simple and straightforward production delivers it directly.

The titular cosmos in the poster is, incidentally, a soccer team.

This short play, first staged in 1988, still has universal dimensions and Kemp gives a powerful and moving performance.

The Great Nebula in Orion

A two-hander first staged by Circle Rep staged it in 1972, it presents two former college friends, now in their 30s, who meet by accident in Bergdorf’s. Class of 1958, they’ve not seen each other since they turned 20 and 14 years later their lives are very different.

Louise is a successful fashion designer living in Manhattan in an apartment with views of Central Park and the Hayden Planetarium. Fur-coated Carrie has married money, a man with important business and political connections. She has two children and lives comfortably in the countryside outside Boston.

Louise has invited Carrie back for coffee (Carrie thinks it taste awful) but they rapidly move on to brandy which makes their at first rather awkward conversation flow more easily.

Both women have ”made it” in the world’s eyes but, along with glimpses of current and past lives—Carrie's husband David, making toys in a workshop to escape to his own space, her brother Sam, a poet they both met and an element of envy between them—there is a hint of things deeper: “the country isn’t led the way you think it is,” declares Carrie without further explanation. Is there a feeling of inadequacy when Louise says, “I drape, Chanel cuts,” and that Chanel’s made the same dress for 30 years? There may not be anything explicit to say Louise is lesbian but was there once an intimacy perhaps unacknowledged or rejected?

Intriguingly, Wilson has both women address their thoughts and comments about the other directly to the audience and Rachel Barry as Louise and Lois Denny as Carrie pull this off splendidly, making direct eye-contact with audience members, so that it seems a perfectly natural part of performance. Both performances and play make one want more. Too achieve such fluidity and apparent naturalness isn’t easy.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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