Part I—The word epic is so misused. It can be applied to, for instance, a migraine headache, or the feat of eating the most hot dogs in a competition at the county fair. Epic originally meant a long heroic poem, told in elevated style, The Iliad, for example. But epic has also been used to describe other works of art; Bertoldt Brecht wrote some epic plays. So, for our theatrical purposes here, let’s define epic as a work of unusual scope and length that deals with serious matters of great import. Certainly, Shakespeare’s cycle of plays about the House of Lancaster (Henry the Fourth Parts I and II; Henry the Fifth) can be called epic. Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen is a monumental work, a cycle of four lengthy operas usually performed in four days.
Peter Brook’s 1985 adaptation of the Sanskrit epic, the Mahabharata, was first performed in French in a quarry outside of Avignon. The performance consisted of three parts, which took nine hours, eleven counting the breaks. In 1987, Brook later translated it in to English for a performance produced in Zurich. The only other production I know of that took a whole day to experience is The Western Stage’s extraordinarily fine production, East of Eden. Adapted by Alan Cook, the Steinbeck masterpiece was crafted into three three-act plays. They could be seen in three consecutive evenings or in one day—morning, afternoon and night. It is to this day the greatest piece of theatre I have ever seen.
With this lengthy introduction, I mean to place playwright Murray Mednick’s magnum opus, The Gary Plays, in appropriate context. The Gary Plays are not as sweeping in scope or performance as the Mahabharata or East of Eden. Mednick’s script consists of three parts, each with two distinct plays. Part I—“Tirade for Three” introduces a man named Gary (Jeff LeBeau), a middle-aged, out-of-work actor mired in an existential crisis. Goaded by a chorus consisting of a sympathetic man (Derek Manson), and a harsh, acerbic woman, (Amanda Weier), Gray spews venom and angst. Essentially components of his subconscious, the two badger, cajole and, rarely, encourage Gary, for whom life is the shits. He hasn’t had a job in a year and his agent says nobody knows him. He carries a lot more of life’s woes, but the key to it all is the death of his troubled, beloved son, shot down by nobody knows who for a reason nobody knows why. The style of this very short play is presentational, visually sparse, and performed with minimal movement in ten extremely short “acts.” It is a curtain raiser, immediately followed by “Girl on a Bed.”
“Girl on a Bed” opens up the action, and the style of acting shifts to something more realistic, much of it conceived as takes in the continuing movie that is Gary’s life. The scenes are announced by the chorus in script terms such as “EXTERIOR— STREET—DAY.” The chorus is still there weighing in when necessary, but other characters are autonomous, and not necessarily a product of Gary’s mind. The style is episodic, with characters revealed in shifts of time backward and forward. It gives nothing away to say that the audience sees the girl in the title, Laura (Laura Liguori), for the first time as she lays dead on a makeshift gurney representing a bed. Laura, as revealed in subsequent scenes, is a smart, beautiful girl of seventeen who lives in a home from hell with a harridan mother, Monica (Barbara Schofield), and a feckless father, Charles (Carl J. Johnson). Told so often that she is worthless and has no future, she becomes convinced of it. No one can help her; not the school counselor, Mrs. Williams (Peggy Ann Blow) nor her best friend, Rena (Sandra Kate Burck). She falls into the bad company of career junkie, Rondell (Phillip Curry), and that of a slick, well dressed, Latino named Antonio (Peggy Ann Blow), who is death incarnate. Antonio exploits her beauty in the worst of ways, confirming her own sense of worthlessness.
Laura’s connection to Gary and to Gary’s son, Danny (Josh Trant) occurs outside an AA meeting where Danny is struck by her beauty. As the action shifts back into Gary’s consciousness, the audience is introduced to his bitter, first wife, Gloria (Laura Richardson), and also to his impatient, had-it-up-to-here second wife, Marcia (Ms. Weier).
Part II—The second part of Murray Mednick’s epic story of a man named Gary (the enthralling Jeff LeBeau) begins with “Gary’s Walk,” and consists almost entirely of the tortured man’s descent into homelessness haunted by the voices in his head, the same chorus played by the same actors—Amanda Weier and Derek Manson. Gary roams the streets of Los Angeles mime-walking in place flanked by the chorus. Again time is flexible. As he walks, he revisits times past: a moment of cheerful affection from his first wife, Gloria (Laura Richardson), and a later, bitter scene with her in which he retrieves the ashes of their dead son. The unifying action of the short play is Gary’s determined goal to reach the Pacific shore so he can release the ashes into the surf, as was the young man’s stated wish.
Along the way, he encounters Monica (Barbara Schofield), mother of the young woman, Laura who overdosed on heroin. She is now also a homeless creature who pushes a cart as she roams Wilshire Boulevard. The spirit of Danny (Josh Trant) makes an appearance, as does second wife Marcia (Ms. Weier). The mysterious Antonio (the simply marvelous Peggy Ann Blow), also haunts the hapless Gary as he relives in his imagination the circumstances of the death of his son. The style of this part of the action reverts to that of the first play with the characters primarily delivering their words facing full front to the audience, an indicator of the isolation of Gary.
“Gary’s Walk” starts with the agitating sound of loud, cacophonous noise. The action is once again supported by a series of video projections indicating various Los Angeles locales, including the LA River, freeways, the beach and more. This part of the play cycle is unrelievedly grim, a knot of tension prevailing throughout. It is tough to watch Gary’s descent into homelessness and tougher still to witness the witch’s brew of swirling anxiety. The tension is gripping.
In the second play of the evening, “Out of the Blue,” Kelly Van Kirk takes the role of Gary. Mr. Van Kirk is of a similar build as Jeff LeBeau and he also sports a short, full-face beard. This time Gary does not appear as the homeless wraith, but rather as a traveler off to visit his parents at a nursing home in Nevada. His demons escape his mind in the airport and he looses a verbal tirade at other passengers, who he sees as possessed and evil. This nets him a tough time with the security officers, played by the chorus. Eventually, he manages to get to his elderly parents, father DaddyO (Roderick Menzies), an aging lothario who still dreams of copious copulation, and his mother Mama Bean (Elizabeth Lande), a sharp old dame on life support who talks with a decidedly East Coast lilt. She sits up on a small platform center stage in a kind of combination bed and chair. At the front of the platform a gigantic plug just begs to be pulled.
The mysterious Latino, Antonio, looking exactly the same, is sometimes the gate-keeper to Hell, or Chauncy, the camera man in charge of filming every moment of Mama Bean’s descent into oblivion. The dead—Laura (Laura Liguori), Danny, and a new character Roulé, another role played by that great protean actor, Ms. Blow—show up and have plenty to say. There are many revelations, including the exact playing out of the whys and wherefores of Danny’s murder.
This segment of the saga boasts several, perfectly appropriate, hard-won laughs. It fires up to a gripping climax, accompanied by a sound so powerful it literally shakes the audiences risers.
Part III—In the fifth installment of The Gary Plays, “DaddyO Dies Well,” Gary, with Mr. Van Kirk continuing in the role, moves a bit off center stage, yielding the focus to DaddyO (Mr. Menzies, delivering a bravura performance), who claims the lion’s share of the action. In a bucolic setting, Gary comes to visit his step-father, who reveals himself as an aging hipster, a relic from the days of sex, drugs and, maybe, rock ‘n’ roll, but definitely a horny old devil who never got his fill of women. DaddyO has brewed a psychedelic tea to act as a purgative for Gary, with the notion of shaking him up into some kind of clarity. It is a vile potion that brings on fits of vomiting and many confessions of sorrow.
Gary’s first wife, Gloria (Ms. Richardson) is on her own quest for clarity and weighs in by magical communication from the Andes. The bitter second wife, Marcia (Ms. Weier), still has nothing good to say about Gary. And the deceased Mama Bean (Ms. Lande), stands patiently relaxed and still upstage right throughout the scene until the climactic moment of imminent death promised in the title is nigh, with Antonio (Ms. Blow), the agent of death, showing extraordinary patience with DaddyO until his time is up
This segment of The Gary Plays is by far the most engaging, easing off some of the grimness of earlier episodes and giving the audience more chances to laugh at the absurdity of human existence as limned by Mr. Mednick.
The final segment of The Gary Plays, “Charles’ Story” is a radical departure from what has gone on before, save for the static staging of characters facing front and not making eye contact with their interlocutors. Gary (now played by Darrell Larson) is happy, old and wiry. He is off booze and drugs and has a job at the posh Malibu Recovery Center, where he is a part time performance therapist. Lest we forget, he is an actor. The chorus of inner voices is gone, and the focus of the action relegates Gary to a supporting role, save for a set piece near the end.
Gary encounters Todd (excellent Norbert Weisser), a film producer Gary knows from the old days. Todd is there to dry out after descending into an alcoholism that had him drinking ten bottles of wine a night. Todd is a sharp-tongued, cynical piece of work filled with self-loathing.
Much of the action takes place in contentious therapy sessions conducted by a harried Dr. Nin (Amanda Weier). This is where Charles (Carl J. Johnson) makes his appearance. Charles, the woebegone man with a harridan wife upstairs and a beautiful doomed daughter. His wife, who we last saw roaming Wilshire boulevard pushing a cart, has thrown him out and sent him to rehab for an addiction he is not sure he has. Also in the group are Angela (Laura Liguori), a rich, hyperactive housewife, with a tart tongue, the aforementioned Todd, and John Shirley (Derek Manson), a self-described “dating trainer.” The sessions are many, and always fraught.
Mr. Larson as Gary grabs center stage near the over-the-top climactic finish, delivery a passionate rendition of Agamemnon’s return home from the Trojan War, where the Greek general was slain by his wife Clytemnestra for sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia. It is a fine piece of theatre by itself, and points the way to the climactic finish.
Directed with a sure hand by Guy Zimmerman, the cast is uniformly superb, each character rendered in rich, nuanced detail. Produced by Open Fist Theatre Company, the plays are handsomely mounted with a minimalist, open-stage set by scenic designer Jeff Rack, lit with great subtly by lighting designer Dan Reed, and enhanced by the superb projections designed by Hana S. Kim. The extraordinary sound design by John Zalewski underscores the entire play, often with such extreme subtly that it is almost subliminal. Costumes by designer Kharen Zeunert fully support characters and action.
The Gary Plays, crafted and refined over decades by Murray Mednick, with the participation of many collaborators, is an undeniable accomplishment. This is a triumph, drama at its finest. But, some might whine, it is such a downer; it is so resolutely grim. To those I say, there is plenty of wry humor, and besides, Oedipus is comedy? Long Day’s Journey into Night is a laugh fest? Hamlet is fun?
Time is short and these comments are late. See this production before it is gone. The run has been extended through June 10. Parts I, II and III can be seen on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, respectively, and the entire cycle on Sundays at 12 noon, 3pm and 7pm. at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Avenue in Los Angeles.