or The Man Who Was a Quarry
Produced by Charter Theatre at Theatre on the Run
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
The “stones” to which the title of this new Mark Charney play refers are kidney stones. These are crystalline structures which attach to the kidney walls of anyone unfortunate enough to be afflicted by them. Eventually, they pass through the genito-urinary system and out through the urethra. The pain is thought to be among the most excruciating experienced by men. If so, 37 Stones is right up there with it.Every moment of this two-hour-and-fifteen-minute experience – some of it funny, some of it sharply observed, much of it well-performed – is an acid-bath swim in the noxious, toxic wastewater of a family so irredeemably depraved as to make the Manson family look like the Osmonds.And – this is the worst part – it’s a comedy.
“You know, I don’t think your penis has grown any since you were six years old,” Edna (Jane E. Petkofsky) casually tells her seventeen-year-old son Mark (Michael Skinner).He is in a warm bath, hoping to urinate and thus force out one of the thirty-six stones he will come to pass in the course of the play (the thirty-seventh, of course, is his mother.)When he angrily asks for some privacy, she tells him, with a leer, that he should lock the bathroom door – an impossibility, since she removed the lock ten years previous.
A child’s impulse to love and respect his mother is a deep one, reinforced by both religious law and millions of years of natural selection. King Lear one day hopes his daughter will understand “how sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is/ To have a thankless child!” But some mothers – and Edna is one of them – are so awful, one is compelled to say: bring on the snakes.
Edna is clearly Mommy Drearest, and she is abetted by the even more awful Aunt Fanny (Caren Anton).Charney makes Edna’s incestuous fixation on her son inescapably obvious, as if he was afraid that the audience would miss the point.“Why would you go with her, when you have me?” she asks the thirty-year-old Mark, on the eve of his marriage to Erin (Sarah Melinda) – not once but a dozen times, in a dozen different ways. In real life Mark’s response would involve her involuntary commitment to an institution.In this play, he pledges his eternal love to mother, while (gulp) going ahead with the wedding.
Kidney stones are, in fact, the least of Mark’s problems. His mother’s abusive attentions have made him periodically incapable in bed, and nearly incapable of sustaining a relationship with the saintly Erin, whose virtuous patience hides the real question: what does she see in this insufferable mama’s boy? Why would a woman who had any other options (and, by engaging the very attractive Melinda in this role, director Richard Washer clearly meant to show that she did have other options) stick with a man who breaks his first three dates with her – the last time by explaining that his roommate offered to buy him pizza?
“You’re the sweetest man I ever met,” Erin says, on the eve of their wedding, “and you try so hard.” But Mark doesn’t try at all. “I’m sorry,” is his catchphrase, followed closely by “I apologize”, “I couldn’t help it” and “I had no choice.” In fact, he is a wimp of the – no pun intended – first water, and his inability to defy his mother – unlike, say, his brother Randy (Ray Ficca) – marks him as an inert character, unable to grow.
Charney’s first error was to treat this Southern gothic horror story as a comedy. His second was to make the inert Mark the protagonist of the story. A good play will describe a protagonist’s effort to achieve his objective, against difficulties. The protagonist may succeed, or fail, but he must move. Whatever successes Mark has, he stumbles into. Erin puts up with his mother complex, his lack of enthusiasm for her, his fumbling sexuality because – well, frankly, because she was written that way. Mark marries her, but otherwise continues unchanged, passing kidney stones and cowering in front of the crazy old bat, until she finally croaks.
Which brings up Charney’s third error: he unmoors the play in time, so that we cannot tell from scene to scene if Mark is supposed to be eight, or thirty-one, or seventeen until he speaks.(We certainly can’t learn it from Edna, who uses the same domineering, sex-laden voice to talk with Mark regardless of his age).Charney’s backflips into the past and future are generally done without explanation and at a dizzying pace, and towards the end were sort of cruel. When Charney finally got Edna into the ground, I had really anticipated the play’s conclusion and the commencement of Charter Theatre’s excellent reception in the next room. Alas, the time-travel thing struck, and I was compelled to endure another scene, this one involving Mark’s whining and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to get his mother to attend the reception for his wedding to Erin.The play ends, unsatisfactorily, with mother and child staring at each other.
A competent cast cannot resuscitate this horribly misconceived play.Each actor quickly and efficiently establishes his or her single note: suffering Mark, saintly Erin, awful Edna, and even more awful Fanny. Only the agile Ficca, who is particularly good playing younger brother Randy as a child, manages to surpass his material, although I must note that Randy is the sole character who Charney imbues with any growth or indeed any change at all.
Nor can we fairly blame director Washer for this production, although I do wish he had not stuffed a half-filled glass of Jim Beam into Edna’s hand every ding-dong minute of the play. 37 Stones does not fail the way bad productions fail. Washer was true to Charney’s intention, at least by everything I could see. I just wish Charney had different intentions.
Static characters; no resolution; unclear motivation – this play is a mess. But I must tell you that Charney, who is a professor of playwriting at Clemson University, is in fact a competent, even gifted, writer. His dialogue sparkles; he understands the way children speak; he has clever moments and occasionally surprises us with a belly laugh. 37 Stones might, after reconstruction, become a good piece of drama.
37 Stones or The Man Who Was a Quarry continues at Theatre on the Run, 3700 South Four Mile Run in Arlington, Thursdays through Sundays until March 30. Shows are at 8 p.m. every night; in addition, there are Saturday matinees at three. Tickets are $25 on Fridays and Saturdays and $20 at all other times.