Elie Wiesel once wrote that the opposite of love was not hate but indifference, and for seventy-five of its ninety minutes this odd, affecting play is a festival of indifference – in particular the indifference of the elderly hatmaker Hetchman (Sasha Olinick), who loves his wife (Kerri Rambow) less than he loves his hat, but doesn’t love either of them enough to get out of his chair.
His indifference isn’t the only one. In another part of the world, a young woman (Kristen Garaffo) prepares for her upcoming wedding with all the joie de vivre of a claustrophobic preparing for his MRI. Her ambivalence seems to extend even to her sense of reality: when the wall (the voice of Helen Pafumi) begins to speak to her, she is only mildly nonplussed, and soon she is chatting back so easily that I half expected her to offer the wall some coffee.
Even Hetchman’s wise friend Meckel (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh), who urges Hetchman to call out to his wife, paints in pastels: the single act of passion he can recall has led him to a lifetime of regret. Meckel’s labors with Hetchman are in any event for naught, since Hetchman can’t remember his wife’s name.
In fact, the only real passion through much of the play is shown by a Golem (Chris Stinson, wearing a fabulous costume of Kelsey Hunt’s design). Regrettably, his principal passion is for Cheetos, although he will bite your arm off if the occasion calls for it.
Notwithstanding fine acting (everyone is good, and Olinick, Rambow and Ebrahimzadeh are superb), playwright Lauren Yee’s clever language and piquant observations, and director Shirley Serotsky’s well-conceived staging, it is hard to embrace a play that has indifference at the core. I am going to recommend that you do so anyway, since the payoff is so good.
This will require that you sit tight through several scenes in which Hetchman sits in his easy chair, watching TV and eating peanuts and occasionally bellowing out food and comfort orders to his beleaguered wife. (Hetchman’s stolid recline in his chair may be undergirded by anger; his favorite show is a ten-part PBS special on what life might be like after the extinction of the human race). I must tell you that Hetchman is deserted first by his hat and then by his wife; it annoys him initially, and then he falls asleep.
The principal business of the story is not Hetchman’s struggle to find his wife (or his hat) but the struggle to get Hetchman to struggle to find his wife. It is a hard job. Hetchman seems to value others only to the extent they serve his needs; if he can get the Golem to fetch him peanut cans, his need for his wife is proportionately diminished.
The actors use different routes to get where they need to go, and it’s fun to watch. Rambow plays the wife as a sharp-minded and knowing toughie, but the vulnerability and hurt are never out of her eyes. Olinick plays the irascible Hetchman almost as an old dog incarnated in human flesh, inclined to snarl and then drift off to sleep. Ebrahimzadeh’s Meckel is a salesman at heart, and it is included in his job description to sell to himself. He longs for his beloved dead wife Dosha, but he also recalls that she was “a little bit stupid.”
Yee uses a lot of powerful images, including weightlessness as a metaphor for the failure to love. (Those who do not receive the love they have a right to expect become unmoored from gravity, and float away.) More powerfully still, the wife is nameless until the very end of the play. Naming is power: God gave mankind dominion over the animals by giving Adam the power to name them (Genesis 2:19) and, nearly fifty years later, we still recall Mohammed Ali’s struggle to assert power over himself by renaming himself. But the woman with a function – “wife” – and no name is without power entirely, and is not much different than “hat”. (Interestingly, none of the women in this play have a name.)
Yee does another clever thing: she makes the principals émigrés from some Eastern European land, not entirely conversant in English, and so their language is necessarily pithy and down to earth. Where narrative sophistication is required, Yee puts the language in the mouth of the young woman and her fiancée (Daniel Corey), who speak without accents.
A Man, His Wife and His Hat
Closes April 28, 2013
John Swayze Theatre
9431 Silver King Court
1 hour, 30 minutes without intermission
Tickets: $25 – $30
Fridays thru Sundays
And then, in the play’s frantic final fifteen minutes, it all comes home to us. I won’t tell you what happens, but think of the first time you read Catch-22. You went through all this stuff for the first six hundred or so pages, and you thought, man, this is clever, this is funny, but what’s the point? Then, in the last chapter, when you found out what Catch-22 was, you discovered the point. In spades. It is much like that here.
A Man, His Wife and His Hat by Lauren Yee . Directed by Shirley Serotsky . Featuring Sasha Olinick, Kerri Rambow, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, Kristen Garaffo, Daniel Corey, Chris Stinson and Helen Pafumi. Creative team: Eric Shimelonis, Original Music . Leigh-Ann Friedel . Scenic Design . Ken Wills . Lighting Design . Kelsey Hunt . Costume Design . Patrick Calhoun . Sound Design . Susan Maloney, Props . Rebecca Griffith . Stage Management . Produced by Hub Theatre Company . Reviewed by Tim Treanor