I have to admit that after watching The Nature and Purpose of the Universe, I still don’t know the nature and purpose of the universe. Worse: I don’t even know the nature and purpose of The Nature and Purpose of the Universe.
Look, let me put my cards on the table: I hate thIS kind of play – one in which a string of highly unlikely events occur without coherent order or motivation. Some people like it, and you may be one of them. If you like Arthur Kopit (Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad), for example, you might like this. I don’t, though. Playwright Christopher Durang is frequently funny and insightful, but The Nature and Purpose of the Universe just seems old and shrill.
Eleanor Mann (Sarah Melinda) is having a bad Tuesday. Her drug-addicted, drug-dealing, pimping son Donald (Jim Gange) believes that Eleanor has stolen his hypodermic needle, and is whacking her around the room to get her to return it or its cash equivalent. In the meantime, her flamboyantly gay middle son Gary (Steve Lee) is flouncing his signature purple scarf at her, and her youngest son Andy (Genevieve James) is suffering from a traumatic separation from his penis due to some horrible industrial accident. And it’s four long days to the weekend!
Eleanor’s indifferent husband (Phillip Baedecker) is of no help. He has bigger fish to fry: along with Sister Anne Du Maupassant, the radical nun of Bellmont (Aniko Olah; whenever her title is announced we get the blast of an organ chord), he plans to kidnap his Holiness Pope Paul VI (his holiness Alex Perez) and have him replaced by Sister Du Maupassant.
in the meantime, Eleanor’s life just gets worse. A neighbor (Olah again) takes her color TV because Donald has turned the neighbor’s young daughter (Hank the Rabbit – don’t ask) into a drug addict. Young Andy has apparently exposed his memberless self to the members of the PTA, thus costing Eleanor her membership – and her school parking privilege. Worse, she’s raped by the high school coach (Lee again). Then she discovers Gary has taken up with the crude, cross-dressing Ralph (Perez again). And after this extremely rough day, Steve berates her for not having dinner ready and the beds made. “Worst wife ever,” he mutters.
All this is framed by explanatory notes delivered by Ronald, Agent of God (Tanera Hutz), also appearing as a Fuller Brush man who promises to rescue Eleanor from all this. Eventually, the Papacy Plot apparently forgotten, Steve moves the family to Iceland, where he slobbers over an off-key (pre-Björk) chanteuse (Olah again) right in front of Eleanor. Eleanor longs for the surcease of death, which is teasingly held out but sadly (for her as well as us) denied.
Director George Grant has his talented but under-rehearsed cast deliver all this with one-note, one-volume (loud) performances, as though persistence will make the plot somehow more plausible. But perhaps this is what Durang had in mind. It’s hard to tell, frankly.
Does Durang, who is himself gay, mean to suggest that having a gay son is comparable to having a son who is a drug addict and a pimp? Does he mean to suggest that the estate of women in America is so low that Eleanor has no choice but to take the abuse she receives in this show? It isn’t true, and it wasn’t true in 1975, when the show was first produced, or in 1897, when Pope Paul VI was born. Notably, Durang imagines one woman with the temerity to overthrow the Pope. You’d think the other woman would have the nerve to leave an abusive marriage.
Baedecker and Melinda actually end up doing a convincing job as the senior Manns; Gange does as well as anyone can with what he is given in the role; and Perez, an actor who deserves fuller utilization by Washington companies, shows some comic chops. But by and large the cast is not there yet. Last night, Hutz read some of her lines out of a tiny notebook and still stumbled over the words. Olah’s turn as a school secretary was almost painful to watch. In general, the performers seemed uncertain and tentative. This lack of confidence, combined with the bizarre script, gave the show the air of a long form improv gone horribly, horribly wrong.
- Running Time: 50 minutes
Tickets: The Nature and Purpose of the Universe
- Remaining Shows: Sun, July 13 at noon . Thurs, July 17 at 8:45 . Sat, July 19 at 6 . Wed, July 23 at 7 . Sat, July 26 at 9
- Where: Fort Fringe, 607 New York Avenue, NW