Manic Flight Reaction
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
October 30, 2005
Filled with profoundly cynical statements about the state of American politics, college education, the entertainment industry, and 21st century America in general, Sarah Schulman’s Manic Flight Reaction still wants to have faith in human nature. The play never resolves this central contradiction, which makes it unsatisfying; there’s a heated argument going on throughout the play, but in the end no one has changed at all.
The case for optimism about humankind lies in the hands of Marge, a bisexual performance artist who has finally finished her Ph.D. in the History of Consciousness and landed a teaching job in Illinois that comes, for the first time in her life, with health insurance and a steady paycheck. Still carrying a torch for the slightly psychotic actress who’s recently dumped her, Marge has taken up with Albert, a puppyish graduate student. Despite the challenges of her life to date—the death of her mother, abandonment by her father, single parenthood, financial struggle, and a never-fulfilled quest for love—Marge still truly believes in open communication, trust, and the essential goodness of human connections.
The case for cynicism lies with most of the other characters in the play. Marge’s daughter, Grace, a junior at Hampshire College, is majoring in Alienation Studies and trying to figure out how to be both nice and ruthless—though if she had to choose, ruthless would win. Grace’s boyfriend, Luke, the son of the CEO of Union Carbide in Bhopal, has fame as his only career goal. Luke’s looking for a senior project that will put him on the map—and decides, with Grace’s help, to make a documentary about Marge, whom he sees as a sad throwback to a pre-ruthless age. When Luke and Grace discover that Marge’s first love, Cookie, is now the platitude-spouting wife of a Republican presidential candidate, they stage a meeting between them that has enormous marketing possibilities.
On top of all this, throw into the mix a tabloid journalist, who arrives to interview Marge about an upcoming Todd Haynes movie based on the life and suicide of Marge’s mother. Not only is the media-averse Marge unaware of the film, but she’s been lying to Grace for her whole life about the circumstances surrounding her mother’s death.
One eruption of Marge’s past into the present with hugely public repercussions might have been made plausible; two are both convoluted and a strain on credibility. And the convolution factor is not helped by the tendency of the characters to engage in blatant psychological exposition, explaining every thought, mental state, and intention. It feels as if Schulman doesn’t trust her audience to get any subtext—which is a shame, because she’s at her most incisive and witty when she resists the temptation to over-explain. (My favorite moment is an exchange between Marge and Cookie: COOKIE: There is a cure for homosexuality. MARGE: What is it? COOKIE: Fame.)
Much is revealed, explained, and discussed in the course of the play—but in the end, Luke and Grace go off to seek fame and fortune, the journalist goes away with her scoop, we never find out what happens to Cookie after the scandal breaks, and Marge remains alone with her ideals. The only one who seems truly affected by the events of the play is Albert, who finally learns to do his own laundry.
The actors do their best to rise above the wordiness and the psychological exposition, with varying degrees of success. Deirdre O’Connell is stunningly good as Marge. Her grounded, subtle portrayal turns a character who could easily become Pollyanna into a strong woman who has consciously chosen—and continues to choose—to live according to her ideals, even if she’s made a lot of mistakes along the way. Yes, Marge, too, tends to wax philosophical at the slightest provocation, but O’Connell makes her sound genuine and passionate even when quoting Walter Benjamin.
Jessica Collins as Grace and Michael Esper as Luke both find the humor and the charm in their hopelessly self-centered adolescent characters, but both struggle with the more heavy-handed pronouncements. Molly Price’s Cookie is both written and performed as a caricature; Price fares slightly better when playing Marge’s mother in a flashback, but still seems over the top.
Director Trip Cullman, too, seems a little stifled by the speechifying; much of the physical production feels rather static—except for a perhaps unnecessary but physically beautiful flashback near the end. The richly detailed set, by Louisa Thompson, hits just the right note, but so much of the play takes place in stillness, with one character talking and the others listening intently, that the set feels underused.
Schulman is also a novelist, and I think perhaps this story might fare better as a novel. I can easily see how pronouncements that feel overblown when stated baldly by a character would seem wryly ironic in the voice of an omniscient narrator. As a play, though, Manic Flight Reaction has both too much and too little to say.