The New York stage has been a bonafide yak fest these days, with everyone from David Hare to Calista Flockhart laying bare their souls in lengthy pieces where the lone interaction is with audience members who absorb their deepest ruminations.
This approach to drama is an acquired taste; for some, an evening at a show such as Hare's Via Dolorosa, or Neil LaBute's bash (the Flockhart-starrer) is like paying to tune in to the radio, or watching (or rather, listening to) paint dry.
The current master of the monologue is undoubtedly that 27-year-old Irish motormouth Conor McPherson, whose ghostly tales in The Weir have had critics and audiences on both sides of the Atlantic talking up a storm. Two-thirds of the cast of This Lime Tree Bower, an earlier McPherson piece enjoying a thrice-extended run through August 15 at Primary Stages, took a break from their spieling to discuss McPherson and this shaggy thief story, which in less than 80 minutes ropes in fish and chips, rape and robbery, and philosophy and puke.
This Lime Tree Bower has a title that alludes to Coleridge, and a sensibility that eludes easy description. It was first performed in Dublin in 1995, as "Pulp Fiction" knockoffs with similarly intersecting storylines were piling up all over the screen. But this off-kilter comedy-drama by a young playwright and screenwriter a world away from Los Angeles has its own singular tempo, one that's up to the performers to maintain. There are three characters: winsomely innocent Joe (Jamie Bennett), his earthier, hard-charging older brother Frank (Thomas Lyons), and a well-beyond earthy academic, Ray (Drew McVety).
Each stitches together his bits of the convoluted narrative in freight trains of text -- some of their monologues sprawl over eight to nine script pages, and take up to 10-12 minutes to deliver. Lime read like a lemon to Bennett the first time he read it: "My initial reaction was, 'How are we going to do this without boring the audience to death?' There's just so much...speaking." "It was pages and pages of adultery, disgust, and vomit," says McVety of his adulterous, disgusting, and vomitous character. "My mother was open mouthed the first time I read her my first monologue. My girlfriend doesn't want her parents to see the show."
It didn't take long for the actors to see the possibilities in their parts, however. Both had come off stints in far more extravagant shows: McVety in Titanic ("where I got to swing off for long periods of time and grab a cup of coffee") and Bennett in the Goosebumps Live touring production, where "my job was to run around the set. A lot." Swapping stories from the rickety folding chairs that comprise the Lime Tree set seemed just the ticket for "acting at its purest and simplest form," as Bennett says.
Once cast in April, McVety entered McPherson boot camp with actor director Harris Yulin (Bennett replaced T.R. Knight, the production's original Joe, several weeks into the run). "The only thing that's in the script in terms of a stage direction is a notation that reads that the actors are onstage all the time and they are certainly aware of each other. There are no hints about blocking or, for that matter, where we are, or why we're here. Harris decided on the chairs, as if we were three guys just in from Ireland telling the story from our seats. And his concept was that this wasn't a monologue, happening in a void -- it was storytelling, and he would always take us away, as individuals and as an ensemble, from feeling too much or taking a moment for ourselves. You do that, and you lose the thread of the piece. You always have to keep the energy up or else risk shooting yourself in the foot."
Forgetfulness is a bullet the castmembers have had to dodge. Says McVety, "As you approach the end of a monologue after doing it several times out, your synapses get well-greased, so the flow of memorization improves."
"But if your synapses get burned in the wrong way, that can be difficult," Bennett adds. "Drew gave me a note once, that I was saying 'out of the hospital' instead of 'out of hospital,' which is how it's said in Ireland. It took me four shows until I could work it in, because the wrong way was all that would come out of my mouth, even though I knew it had to be fixed."
"If one of us goes up on a line, there's nothing to be done, except offer encouragement. Silently," McVety laughs.
In performing the piece, a fourth character, the audience, emerges. It's their response, good or bad, that helps tie the threads of the stories into a single narrative. "Rehearsals were nerve-rattling for me," Bennett recalls. "I had, for example, six different people telling me eight different things about 'about,' a word with sharply different pronunciations in the Irish dialect, and God help you if say it incorrectly. But with the addition of the audience, the performing was, suddenly, great."
The actors describe how the audience molds what Bennett calls their "aggregate performance." "The audience is our scene partner," McVety says. "You look for members who are laughing, or grunting, or, some nights, just plain breathing. The audience is partially lit, so if people are dozing, we see them."
"In a smaller house, an audience may not laugh because it just doesn't feel right, which can severely hamper you. And you can't overpower them," says Bennett.
"Performances like that, where it's so quiet, are like standup comedy, and that can be deathly," McVety says. Audience reaction has helped him find the human core beneath his character's wormy exterior ("he tells you all his weaknesses in explicit detail, like Richard III"), and Bennett locate the "universality" in Joe's naivete, "a place I like taking the audience back to in their lives."
The suppleness of the material comes in handy on a slow night, says McVety. "It's Shakespearean, in the sense that you can perform it many different times and toss something out one night, and have it get an instantaneous response that I didn't know was there."
This Lime Tree Bower has been running since May, much longer than anticipated. Though McPherson is adapting the piece into a film called "Salt Water," the play has clearly taken root with audiences. In a kind of preshow, the actors are semi-visible behind a scrim, playing darts; a pub touch that Bennett says "relaxes and focuses us" and puts the viewer in a receptive frame of mind for "a simple story told by three guys."
"It's a new old form, that goes back to when cavemen related stories around campfires," says McVety of the appeal of the talk soup playwrights have been ladling out recently. "What people respond to in Conor's work, I think, is just that feeling of overhearing stories told in a bar, where you visualize what someone else is saying. You should have pints afterwards."