Dallas — War is hell; but the secrets buried and lies amassed on the way to the battlefield—sometimes not uncovered for generations—can result in hell to pay. It's downright profane. The trickle-down of such secrets is one of the themes explored in Sylvan Oswald's deceptively simple Profanity, having its world premiere in a carefully crafted production at Undermain Theatre, directed by Katherine Owens.
Profanity is the third play in the second trilogy by Oswald, a trans writer who's starting to make a name for himself at theaters that share Undermain's sensibilities—where language, structure and performance styles brazenly play outside the lines. It might not be entirely successful, but Profanity turns out to be one of those works that's easy to appreciate, if hard to fall in love with. It certainly invites interest in the other two plays (Sun Ra and Nightlands) in this triptych, called the “Mystery” plays; as well as his other works.
A synopsis of Profanity doesn't require much ink: Brothers Leo (Michael Federico), Gersh (Bruce DuBose) and Whitey (Alex Organ) run a real estate business in 1950s Philadelphia. Secrets and jealousies emerge when bombshell Vivian (Shannon Kearns-Simmons) and her teenage daughter Esther (Katy Tye) enter the picture.
The big secret is that Gersh has knowingly sold houses built on unstable soil, and for that great motivator of bad decision-making: greed. The play is inspired by Oswald's real estate agent uncles and the true story of the literal housing collapse in Philly's Logan neighborhood, as homes built on landfill ash crumbled. If you need a visual clue that hidden secrets are a major theme, John Arnone's set immediately offers a hint. An infinitude of file cabinets are arrayed, wide and deep suggesting an impenetrable amount of records and documents—or endless lines of identical warplanes on an aircraft carrier—behind the main set of the brothers' office.
Oswald drops in plenty of references to war throughout the work, beginning with the first words of the play about alpha and beta canines witnessed in a dogfight. Some are obvious, such as when Gersh, in an attempt to entertain Esther, engages her in a game of playing ground troops during World War II. (When her mother arrives and asks what they're doing, Esther's response results in one of the biggest so-wrong-it's-funny laughs I've had at the theater in awhile). Others are more subtle, such as Gersh's affection for the original cast recording of South Pacific, a musical about secrets and romance with war on the periphery. Of the two songs he plays on vinyl, one is “There Is Nothing Like a Dame,” which could be in reference to the va-va-voom Vivian, but also a sly wink to the playwright's gender identity.
Oswald admits a love for experimental playwrights like Mac Wellman and Suzan-Lori Parks, who helped shaped the way he thought about putting words and ideas together. (He talks about that in my interview with him, here.) His work has been to compared to a number of those writers, from Erik Ehn to Len Jenkin. All writers, by the way, championed in Undermain's 30 years; this is a group that took on Parks' Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom long before she won accolades, and a Pulitzer, for Topdog/Underdog.
In watching Profanity, the writer who came to mind was one of Oswald's contemporaries, Richard Maxwell, who is very specific about the way actors perform his plays. His experimentation with their emotion and expression (or lack thereof) are as important as the dialogue and the textual rhythm. In Profanity, there is visible emotion, but for every role except Leo, it's muted. I'm not sure if this is a playwright or director choice (I'd guess the former), but the stylized performance adds to the bigger picture.
Kearns-Simmons performs it like she stepped out of a '40s film noir, aware of her sexuality without going overboard. Her line “mommy has poor impulse control,” spoken to Esther, is bone-dry and hysterical. The downplaying by her and DuBose make the sexual attraction between them all the more undeniable, and desperate.
That's bad news for Leo, and gives Federico the character who has the most outward emotion. You feel sorry for him when he doesn't get the girl—the story of his life. That turns to fright when the tables turn and he responds to the newly uncovered secrets.
Organ is an actor who relishes words, but it's fun to see him in a role in which he hardly speaks. Whitey is the drunk who retains some loyalty to his family because he has to, and steps up when it's time to help make amends for wrongdoings. He's sort of the Boo Radley of this story, less spooky and hazy from years of substance abuse.
In the show's final, stunning image, we see the history that Gersh has been adamant about preserving. It's yet another attempt to bury the truth, although this time not in a file cabinet. It adds the mystical quality that Oswald speaks of when he talks about his Mystery plays.
Profanity is a terrific opener for the 30th anniversary season of a theater that has championed this kind of work for three decades; even, as in the past few seasons, grit sometimes gives way to a polish and safeness that's almost mainstream. This play feels like to a return to that truly experimental spirit, of introducing Dallas to works that aren't perfect nor easy, but often unforgettable. Not to mention playwrights still finding their voice.