Dallas — Second Thought Theatre has a reputation for challenging, thoughtful works, and its evening of short plays by celebrated British playwright Caryl Churchill, directed by Second Thought Artistic Director Alex Organ with characteristic élan, is no exception. Churchill’s political satire Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? and her dreamlike Here We Go are both exquisitely produced and chock full of talented performances.
The first short play of the evening is Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?, Churchill’s post-9/11 interpretation of the “special relationship” between Britain and the United States, embodied in the stormy sexual relationship between two men, the aggressive Sam (Brandon Potter) and the more submissive Guy (Blake Hackler), sometimes styled “Jack” in earlier productions of the piece.
We meet the two men literally in the afterglow--in the first flush of their relationship, meeting again after an earlier one-night stand, we’re left to presume. Guy, swept away by Sam’s passion and unwilling to let him leave again, decides to walk out on his family to be with Sam. The two are giddy with the possibilities of their new relationship, drunk on their lust for power—and for each other—finishing one another’s sentences as they scheme for power and dominance on the world stage: foreign policy as pillow talk. But as Sam becomes more aggressive, and less tolerant of Guy’s scruples, their relationship spirals into dysfunction and abuse. Potter and Hackler’s chemistry is hot and palpable—in earlier scenes, there’s almost an impulse to look away from them, like the audience is seeing something too intimate to be shared. Potter calibrates his character’s descent into paranoid megalomania perfectly; his initial enthusiasm and brashness curdles into something stiller, and darker.
Hackler’s Guy seems to fold in on himself, trying to temper Sam’s worst impulses while hanging on to the shreds of their connection. Though the dialogue can be, at times, difficult to follow without a fairly encyclopedic knowledge of American foreign policy from Vietnam to the mid-2000s, the actors succeed in illuminating the underlying tensions. We’ve come a long way since 2006, and a longer way still since the tragedy of 9/11. Whether the relationship between Sam and Guy represents the relationship between the U.S. and Britain, or whether it can be seen now as a representation of the relationship between the U.S. government and its citizens, with “Guy” as a sort of Everyman American, is truly in the eye of the beholder. In any case, it’s a provocative opening salvo in an evening that ends in a quieter, but no less devastating piece of work.
That quieter piece is one from almost 10 years after Drunk, with Churchill contemplating the mechanics and the metaphysics of mortality. Here We Go, although its script is not significantly longer as written than the previous piece, is divided into three distinct acts. The first act shares its title with the piece as a whole. It details the funeral of an older, well-loved and well-lived Englishman, whose friends and lovers have come to celebrate his life. The unnamed funeral-goers, played by Potter and Hackler, along with Second Thought Artistic Associate Jenny Ledel, use the same elliptical, interlocking dialogue to detail their interactions with the deceased and to gossip about his checkered past and ex-wives, which might or might not include the love of the dead man’s former life, played by Rhonda Boutté.
Each mourner has a single moment of utter clarity as they step forward to describe the moment of their death, some in as little as a day, others years hence. As the relationships between the mourners are not particularly defined by Churchill’s script, the production gives subtle nods to what they might be to one another. Potter and Ledel’s characters seem to be together, with Ledel expecting; but there’s a hint of a spark between Potter and Hackler here as well, if not the conflagration of the earlier piece. Former lovers, perhaps? In any case, as the characters speak, a dumb show of sorts is performed behind them by the deceased, in the afterlife and almost in the altogether (he’s in his boxers and nothing else). As the initial act winds down, Connolly sits between the mourners on a loveseat, invisible, as we move into Act II, “After,” in which the dead man, in some sort of limbo, moves from inchoate terror through religious musings on the afterlife into metaphysics. In a bold stroke, the final scene is a set of actions laid out in Churchill’s script, with no set timeframe; rather than spoil anything, let’s just say, the monotony and small indignities of the end of one’s life are displayed in all their tedious and disheartening detail as the scene winds to its inevitable conclusion.
Second Thought never fails to make the most of its black box space. The action in both plays takes place on a suspended white platform, almost evoking an old-school Murphy bed (scenic design from a collaboration between director Alex Organ, technical director and production manager Drew Wall, and lighting designer Aaron Johansen). A loveseat is the only item onstage in the first play, while five vases decorate the lip of the stage in the second. A light installation on the back stage wall is evocative of any number of things in each piece: fragmented versions of the British and American flags, hot red light as Sam details the tortures inflicted on enemies of the state, even the pearly gates in the second piece. The sound design by band Jim/John Makes Noise (duo Jim Kuenzer and John Flores) cleverly uses clips of political speeches mixed with aggressive rock during scene transitions in the first play, and, intriguingly, gives moments of soundlessness in the second that gave the sense of the action taking place in a sort of vacuum.
The two plays are not natural companion pieces apart from their similar length, dealing, as they do, with very different ideas. But as a display of Churchill’s work throughout her long and storied career, they brilliantly showcase the artist at two different stages: the first, offering a vivid display of Churchill’s interest in the political and the personal, and how they intermingle; and the second, later in her life, a contemplation of identity, and how it can be lost as we age.
They require a bold company to take them on, and Second Thought proves itself worthy of the challenge.