Snake in Fridge
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 16, 2005
I have been a gigantic fan of Susan O'Connor since I first saw her on stage, in the New York premiere of Daniel MacIvor's Never Swim Alone, nearly five years ago. She's a remarkable actor of great intensity and emotional power, and her work in Snake in Fridge, the current offering of the Themantics Group, is at once one of the finest performances on stage anywhere in NYC right now and the most compelling reason to see this New York premiere of this kind-of-new (2000) Brad Fraser play.
O'Connor plays Donna, a childlike and possibly brain-damaged woman who is one of the residents of a spooky, broken-down Victorian house in Toronto. Her sister, Caddie, also lives here; she's a stripper at a club owned by high-powered sex-exec Violet, who owns the house and whose cousin, Corbett, is the main tenant there. The other inhabitants are Corbett's longtime pal Travis, a black man who works as a busboy but dreams of opening his own restaurant, and Randy, Violet's "personal assistant" and occasional boy toy; as the play begins, Randy announces that his girlfriend Stacey, a third-generation Chinese-Canadian with no job, is going to move into his room too.
The spine of Snake in Fridge is derived from Shirley Jackson's classic story "The Haunting of Hill House" and has to do with the idea that this old house is somehow evil (it's never clear why or, precisely, how). After Corbett stashes a dead boa constrictor (which he received in payment for a debt in lieu of what he really needs, i.e., cash) in the broken refrigerator, the house's tendencies somehow awaken, and it starts to demand sacrifices. Eventually there's a murder and, in an exciting climax, a good deal more violence. But I never really felt the supernatural pull of the house, nor was I really convinced that Fraser totally believed in it. Corbett and Donna are the only characters who "hear" the house's call—and they are linked as adult survivors/victims of horrific child abuse—but again, the significance of what they hear or why only they hear it is never satisfactorily explored, let alone explained.
Instead, Fraser piles on shock after shock, many of which are gamely executed by director Blake Lawrence and her cast though just as many are seemingly deflected. These include: scenes in the bathroom, depicting characters defecating on the toilet (staged here very abstractly); scenes at the strip club where Caddie works (including one showing us her act, with Sarah K. Lippmann as Caddie, topless and soulless); scenes about and around Violet's new Internet porn business, which she wants Caddie, Stacey, Randy, and/or Travis to work in; scenes about Corbett's dependence on all manner of recreational drugs (which he buys from a worshipful kid named Gabriel) and on a sugar daddy who he detests named Norm, plus others in which he bemoans the small size of his penis. There's also a moment where Travis recounts a mini-race riot that broke out in a bank after a white customer used an ugly epithet against a black manager. And there's a menacing older character named Charles, hovering around the edges and then right in the center of the story, who, it is suggested, could be the long-absent brother who repeatedly raped and then assaulted Donna sixteen years ago, leaving her in the very damaged condition that we now find her.
Snake in Fridge is, in short, crowded with incident—far too much for it's own good, I think, given that the characters we're really interested in—Donna and Caddie—wind up with very little of the plot. We're interested in them because O'Connor and Lippmann are far and away the most persuasive performers in this ensemble, and also because their story—of two sisters running from a dangerous past and toward a possibly redemptive future away from one another—is the one that feels most original and heartfelt. The rest of the stuff crammed into this play feels either like baggage or a red herring, and almost always more than a little derivative (of Mark Ravenhill's Shopping and Fucking and Fraser's own Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love, to name two obvious reference points).
The script would seem to call for a good deal of nudity, violence, and gore, which this production only partway delivers. Some effects—like the very rubbery-looking snake—just outright don't work; others, like a relatively tasteful nude wrestling match between Corbett and Gabriel, feel coy; still others, like a video monitor that provides backgrounds for some scenes but does not display what's on the widescreen video that Corbett buys in Act Two, are confusing. Indeed, Jennifer Varbalow's unit set, which contains a number of different playing areas within the basic frame of the house, is spatially strange, causing actors to (for example) go out and then right back in the same door as they travel from the main floor to the basement. There is, in sum, a disconnectedness in the staging and design that reflects the sketchiness of Fraser's script. Lawrence, who is one of the most consistently talented and intelligent young directors around, seems here to be unwilling or unable to totally commit to the play's grossness.
Sean Baldwin is fitfully effective as the weird older guy Charles, and both Gabriel Grilli and Angela Ai have their moments as Randy and Stacey; Matthew J. Nichols (Corbett) and Patrick Fellows (Gabriel) seem to be stuck working on their exaggerated Canadian accents, while Christian Felix barely registers as Travis and Mimi Bilinski overdoes the bitch-goddess thing as Violet.
But Lippmann and especially O'Connor create real women that move us and haunt us; I so wanted to know more about Donna and what she'd been doing all these years—we learn, to great surprise, that she's 32 years old—and what's going to happen to her. Unfortunately, Fraser has not written that play. The one he has written—oh so unevenly—provides its few rewards in these two characterizations. And luckily here are two fine actors to bring them, as much as they are allowed, to life.