nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
October 7, 2007
Maggie Smith's new play Good Heif is truly a puzzlement. It takes an unnecessarily long route to make what ends up being a very simple point while managing to embrace a number of unflattering and potentially offensive cultural and racial stereotypes along the way. Then, there's the muddled and seemingly pointless symbolism. Hmm. Whether or not this is all intentional I'll leave for the viewer to decide. What I will say, though, is that, for me, Good Heif adds up to a whole lot of nothing.
Which is too bad because the production is marked by New Georges's two increasingly reliable trademarks: strong actors and above average production design. Good Heif isn't necessarily actor-friendly, though, since none of its roles showcase the talented cast. And, because Smith's script remains thematically murky most of the time, the design elements merely serve as a sign of how well-funded the company is more than anything else. The question Good Heif may ultimately leave theatergoers asking is: how and why did this play get produced in the first place?
The setting is a timeless, nebulous place described as "a hot dry land" whose inhabitants dig into the cracked earth day in, day out, for no discernible reason. (When asked how long this has been going on, one character responds "Before memories began.") It's all very Waiting for Godot.
A young man who goes only by the descriptive moniker of "Lad" is suddenly gripped by a bothersome penile erection that never seems to waver. Freaked out by this new development, and not knowing what to do, he asks his father ("Pa") for advice. Pa tells Lad to go find a good woman—"you got to find a good ol heifer"—and dig a hole into her. Lad, taking these words quite literally, goes out into the fields and finds himself a heifer (as in: a cow) and embarks on becoming "a man." Understand what I'm saying?
Lad is quickly overcome by shame and disgust as he learns about sex and his own bodily functions. That's when he meets Ol Heif, a black woman of indeterminate age and origin with glittery skin and horns on her head. Is she the Devil, as Lad fears? Is she a manifestation of his sexual subconscious? Or is she just a denizen of the mysterious land "over thar" beyond the fields?
All good questions, none of which Good Heif ever answers. It isn't even until the play's final moments—when Lad's parents and the other townsfolk become convinced that he's been possessed by the Devil (which everyone pronounces in a backwoods Southern accent so that it sounds like "Divil")—that an ostensible moral to the story becomes apparent: fear and small-mindedness are deadly poisons to mankind's continued health and development.
I applaud Smith for railing against what she views as such limited thinking, but question what Good Heif serves as an allegory for. Judging from the world created here, it would appear as if Smith's vague and arid setting is a stand-in for the rural small town America, which the author seems to think is populated with only dirty, uneducated hicks who speak a simpleton's English. And what is one supposed to make of Ol Heif, who sounds like a runaway slave and tries to entice Lad down a potentially wayward path at every turn? Why is the only black character in this show the one associated with evil devilish temptation? (And is all this symbolism and allegory necessary? Why Smith chooses to convey her message this way also remains a mystery.)
I should also point out that even though I wasn't tuned into Good Heif's wavelength, there were a good many people in the audience on the night I attended who seemed to be. But, for me, Good Heif is an unsatisfying work that ends up feeling as prejudiced and reductive as the people and the viewpoints it tries to criticize.