The American Voice: Adams and Eves
Alone in my cubicle at work about eighteen months ago, I did the geekiest little dance of excitement when I opened my mail to see a new play by Marlane Meyer. It had been at least ten years since I’d known of a new one from her, during which time I often found myself jonesing for a fix. My first encounter with Meyer’s work was so memorable, so eye-opening that I remember precisely where I was sitting: a booth in Frank's Restaurant in Ann Arbor in the ’90s after, rightfully suspecting I might enjoy her writing, a theater history professor loaned me his copy of Etta Jenks (1988). Audacious and screamingly funny, this play starts off as the ancient story of a girl from the sticks who arrives in Los Angeles with dreams of becoming a movie star. Facing a series of dead ends, she soon finds herself acting in pornographic films, controlled by a web of odious men. Far from falling victim to this cosmology, though, she becomes the master of it, finding her power in out-manipulating the sleazebags who are out to exploit her. It's a sardonic tale of social Darwinism, all the more poignant considering the feminist anti-pornography critique at that time, in which an indelible heroine learns to survive.
But as deliciously satiric as Etta Jenks is, it's not just the play's social resonance that I fell for; it was Marlane's voice, the writing itself, the mind behind it. Set in a landscape of dive bars, trailer parks and seedy motels, the riff raff that populates a Marlane Meyer play is on a cosmic journey, a constant spiritual struggle to try to understand how the world works. "People on the fringe were always interesting to me," she told the LA Times in a 1989 interview. "They'll tell you things about themselves. People in the mainstream won’t tell you anything. They know things and they have secrets, but they won’t tell you. Fringe types will tell you everything they ever thought, every mistake they ever made." Though they’re given plenty of knots to untie in the immediate moment (often involving gambling debts, bad marriages and murder charges), their real struggle is to piece together the puzzles that the universe has left for them, to try and find the patterns. Though decidedly contemporary, her plays are engaged in a conversation that spans the entire timeline, not just our tiny millimeter on it. “Myths are probably the most important element in my work,” she told BOMB Magazine in 1990. “I don’t think I ever write out of just one mind. I’m writing out of the group mind, race memory, the collective unconscious—but we won’t go into that now.” Her plays do have a way of calling us back to some earlier version of human life, before civilization dressed us in long pants and put smart phones in our pockets, when we had less of a capacity to distinguish ourselves from nature and saw evidence of the gods all around us: a bygone mindset that’s reflected in our earliest literature and drama.
This is the landscape of a Marlane Meyer play... but only half of the time. On one hand, the characters Meyer writes—that shady community of misfits and weirdos—live in a world where the influences of the gods are plainly felt, in the presence of forces they can’t control and don’t really understand, where the gravitational pull of the moon, for example, has an effect on us, a world whose reality is shared with myth and folklore. But on the other hand, they're firmly rooted in the quotidian world of today, one that seems vastly removed from the gods and all that hoodoo. The result is a thrilling contradiction: heroic, antediluvian characters plopped into the bleak contemporary world of used cars lots, strip clubs and factory jobs, where they have to balance their interrogation of the cosmos with the less wondrous struggle to pay off gambling debts, to keep their job, to stay sober. These are giants in a janky landscape, engaged in a spiritual quest that’s more often than not concerned with the discord of the sexes, each play offering us a new banishment from Eden. Moe’s Lucky Seven, which premiered at Playwrights Horizons in 1994, is a late 20th century interrogation of the Adam and Eve story that unfolds in a tropical themed dive bar that Moe, its proprietor, declares his “metaphysical workshop.” The Chemistry of Change, a 1999 Playwrights premiere, features the devil himself, personified as the horned and tuxedoed carny who’s dropped among a bereft family in the 1950s.
This tension between mythic and quotidian lives at the very core of her writing. If one can count on anything in Marlane's unruly body of work, it's that every characteristic is bound to be accompanied by its polar opposite. Yin is inextricably linked to Yang; the sun to the moon; female to male. Meyer’s plays are unhinged and boisterous; and yet, in the very same breath I would describe her writing as inquisitive, contemplative and wry. It’s the oxymoron itself, the opposition, that’s the common denominator. Her tone is blunt and matter-of-fact, but with a sphinx-like remove, always managing to somehow keep you at arm’s length from what she’s really thinking. The evil impulses of each character are matched exactly by their amount of goodness. They are as squalid as they are dignified. “I believe there is a balance and order in the world that we will all have to reclaim for ourselves one day,” says Ray in The Mystery of Attraction (2000), a slow-burn thriller that asks why we’re drawn so persistently to the lovers who will best destroy us.
“You can say men and women are looking for love in her plays, but maybe it’s more accurate to say that they’re just looking for someone they won’t kill,” offered actress Deirdre O’Connell (who performed in all the plays I’ve referenced here, as well as some I haven’t). “If they’re capable of not killing each other, then they just might find salvation in each other.” The Patron Saint of Sea Monsters, giddily awaited, introduces us to Marlane’s latest Adam and Eve: this time in the form of Aubrey and Calvin, improbable lovers having a tussle with the cosmic sphere, trying very hard to change only to get trapped in who they are over and over again. Abetted by a chorus of whores, killers and psychics in a run-down town, it’s not clear whether they’re after love or its opposite. They only know they’ve been brought together by some force larger than they understand. “I write about people who are stretching, trying to move along the evolutionary ladder," Meyer said in a 1989 interview with Los Angeles Theatre Center, “trying to find that something, that new information, that allows them to crawl a little closer to their immortality.”
Director of New Play Development