A Play on Words
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 16, 2009
Do you remember that inane McDonald's jingle from 1967? "McDonald's is your kind of place..."? Apparently many many people have memories of it; when I typed that phrase into Google I got 4,610,000 matches. Thanks to Brian Dykstra, I'm remembering it now too. A lot. Clanging through my head repetitively, as it must have done 40 years ago. Thanks, Brian.
This little ditty is one of the centerpieces of A Play on Words, Dykstra's new play at the Americas Off Broadway festival at 59E59. The press release calls this loquacious comedy "Seinfeld meets Waiting for Godot," but I think that diminishes this play's accomplishment and also diverts us from its searing political purpose. A tour de force for its two players—Dykstra and Mark Boyett—this is a journey through language and meaning, and how the quest for the latter is mangled and subverted by crafty users of the former.
The play gives us two men, Max and Rusty, who have obviously known each other for a very long time and are now next-door neighbors. Max (Dykstra) is a curmudgeon who values precision in his communication, and so when Rusty (Boyett) asks in passing "What's the story?" while Max sits contemplating a blank piece of cardboard, Max won't simply nod or straightforwardly reply. Instead, he says this:
Based on what?....You really think I have some kind of story? Based on what? You really even want some kind of story?
And then, for 90 minutes, Max and Rusty argue and debate about whether or not Max has a story and whether or not Rusty wants to hear it, and a whole lot of other stuff. I'm loathe to divulge much of the specifics because the play follows an astonishing sort-of stream-of-consciousness path that leads very purposefully to a place Dykstra intends to take us—a place where we're forced to confront the obfuscations and incendiariness of the words people in power hurl at us. But the way there is deliberately circuitous and feels almost random, which explains how several minutes in the middle of A Play on Words are given over to Max and Rusty's recollections of the parody lyrics they sang as kids to the aforementioned fast food theme song.
This is a very funny play, but it's dark in places and, obviously, talky: like Seinfeld and Godot, it's a bit of theatre in which nothing really happens except conversation. But of course that's a deceptive characterization that begs a rebuttal: A Play on Words is about everything. The speech I laughed longest at was this:
Hemingway always talked about the blank page. How daunting it was. The great challenge. Here's a guy faced with reams of blank pages he has to fill. He feels compelled to fill them. With language. Or, at least "words." It's daunting. They won't stop. They keep making more paper.
Your results may be different: you might laugh harder at the long harangue about the etymology of the phrase "I don't give a hang"... or the discussion concerning whether being accused of having sex with a pig is the worst insult... or the deconstruction of the McDonald's song—the other one, the one about the guy who had a farm. Dykstra takes us all over the map and gives our communication sensors an extraordinary workout before he moves in for the kill. So to speak.
Godot is conjured by the two-guys-in-a-void setup, but the void, rendered brilliantly by director Margarett Perry, turns out to be a suburban backyard filled (incongruously, when we stop to think about it) with kids' playground equipment. Dykstra and Boyett give impeccable performances; Dykstra is generous with his material, giving Boyett some of the most stunning bits to deliver.
A Play on Words will give you lots to ponder beyond the tune or catchphrase that it will probably plant in your sub-conscious. And that is precisely what it is about.