Naomi Wallace’s “Night Is a Room” was recently playing at the Signature Center, the third part of a trilogy from their playwright in residence. Wallace has received every conceivable award and had her many plays produced to mostly critical raves. She has climbed to the pinnacle of pretentiousness with labored grandiosity, erudite posturing, and variety in vacuity.
To begin with, the script of “Night Is a Room” features not one but three superscriptions, meant to confer instant prestige, even though none of them has anything to do with the play it overhangs.
From Walter Benjamin, a snobbish cult figure critic-philosopher: “The only way of knowing a person is to love them without hope.” Benjamin enjoys the eminence required to get away with such balderdash. From William Carlos Williams, a vastly overrated poet: “Night is a room/ darkened for lovers.” Together, the two lines make sense; by itself, the first is meaningless and irrelevant. From William Blake: “I shew forth the pang/ Of sorrow red hot: I workd [sic] it on my resolute anvil.” No discernible relevance to Wallace’s play.
“Room” is one of Wallace’s modern pieces; others are historic. Most of them are pretentious even in title. Thus “The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek.” “Things of Dry Hours,” “The Liquid Plain,” and my favorite, “And I and Silence.” Her fist success, “One Flea Spare,” is about the Black Plague that swept 14th-century Europe, and has been incorporated in the permanent repertoire of the Comedie-Francaise, the French National Theater, proving that the bubonic plague is not the only international kind of pestilence.
Wallace’s honors include: the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize (twice), Joseph Kesselring Prize, Southern Writers Drama Award, Obie and Horton Foote Awards, Windham-Campbell Literature Prize, National Endowment for the Arts development grant, Broadway Play Publishing Inc. Playwright of the Year, Arts and Letters Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters chiefly for “her three ’Visions’ of the Middle East that comprise ‘The Fever Chart’” (note the subliterate use of “comprise”), and, best of all, the Charles MacArthur Fellowship (a.k.a. Genius Award). The MacArthur people preconize left-leaning radicals, e.g., Wallace’s involvement with the Palestinians and membership in SURJ (Showing up for Racial Justice).
She has taught in a number of prominent institutions, ranging from the far out Hampshire College (whose graduate she is) and University of Iowa, to the far in Yale and Illinois State University, as well as universities in Amsterdam and Cairo. She has co-edited “Inside/Outside: Six Plays from Palestine and the Diaspora,” and published a volume of verse, “To Dance a Stony Field,” another winning title. She is married to Bruce E. J. Macloed, her frequent co-author, has three children, and lives in Kentucky (born there) and Yorkshire, England.
Now to “Night Is a Room.” There is a Note on the Set. “Set is minimal. Scene changes might morph into other places/spaces rather tan be replaced or exchanged so that there is a subtle layering of both theme and material that undermines the reality of the moment.” As if her moment needed any additional undermining.
There follows a Note on the Dialogue. “Characters may flow from one idea or subject to the next [flowing characters?], even if there seems to be no obvious connection between lines. [Ms. Wallace is an addict of unobvious connections.]. As though the link between thoughts is sometimes missing, but perhaps only for us. [Incomprehensibility just our fault.] Some lines have no break between them and should be treated as complete sentences. [In other words: unpunctuated and incoherent.] Accents are light, not ‘realistic.’ [If so, why bother?] Liana and Marcus have a mild standard English accent. Dore [I lack even a light accent on my keyboard. Please visualize an acute one on the E in Dore.] has a light Yorkshire accent. A beat is one second long. A period within a line signals a break, a half second.” [How are the actors going to manage that? Even if they carried about stop watches, that wouldn’t give them half seconds.] A forward slash signals an interruption at the end of the word. [Is there such a thing as a backward slash as well?]
And now for the story. Liana is 43, a senior account director. She is married to Marcus, a school teacher [Why two words?] He is the son whom Dore had with a French husband when she was 15. He gave her, besides a child, that gilded name and then took French leave. The child is Marcus. He and Liana have an unseen daughter, Dominique (Dom), now studying in the U.S. [Good for dramatic phone calls, among other things.]
We begin in the paltry, neglected back garden in Dore’s home. She has put on her “better” clothes for Liana, who is dressed “elegantly but subtly.” For Marcus’s birthday [but he isn’t there!], she has brought along a bagful of multicolored balloons, good for all kinds of tomfoolery. Dore is shy, barely looks at Liana, but gazes “intently elsewhere, though her gaze is neither vacant nor passive.” Shy but not passive? And how can a gaze be passive, anyway? After much fussing with the balloons, one explodes. Dore watches with fascination, no longer elsewhere, and not vacuously, I presume.
Liana says, “You’re not an easy woman to find. It took me quite a few weeks of intense searching. Intense searching, to find you. And a pretty penny.” [Leeds, where the scene takes place, is not that big; the search would be either easy or impossible; in between makes no sense.] I certainly wouldn’t do it on my own.” What kind of helpers then, on whom she spent 200 pounds? But anything for a perfect 40th- birthday present for hubby, even after decades of abeyance.
When Dore is made to speak about herself, “her words seem all of a piece without breaks . . . At other times her speech is more conventional.” Why the inconsistency? Here she is of a piece: “When I go to the market on the weekends I wear my slippers no one notices they almost look like outdoor shoes and much warmer. . . . they have lasted seventeen years.” How self-revelatory can you get? But Wallace relishes such no-account, irrelevant trivia.
She also loves to get pornographic. While they await Mother Dore’s visit, Marcus and Liana have at it sexually. Herewith a slightly abridged version. “ MARCUS: Extraordinary. With one finger I can turn on the taps. [Liana slaps his face quite hard.] LIANA: (breathless): Let me touch you. MARCUS: Not now. . . . Just for you this time. You’re so beautiful, darling. [Marcus’s fingers move deeply inside her.] You’re a celestial sphere inside. . . . LIANA: Ah, teaching the Renaissance again. Always gets you spunky. [Liana gets closer to cumming.] MARCUS: Louder. I want to hear you.” [The phone rings just as she cumms.]
This usage is faulty. “Cum,” vulgar slang for “come,” is a noun. In no way is it a verb or a participle. And with a preposterous double M yet!
Liana talks to her daughter on the phone. [Stage direction: As L. talks, M. takes a napkin from the table and, with relish, carefully dries his hand, his fingers, as he watches L. L. arranges herself as she speaks. M. hands her the napkin and she quickly wipes herself. L. throws the used napkin playfully at M. M. looks to throw napkin in bin, but there is no bin in sight, so he pockets it.]
There is, never fear, a complementary bit. Liana fantasizes their going to bed early for a good read. “But before we do that, I’ll lay you down on this floor and open your trouser buttons [What? No zippers in Leeds?] with my teeth, one by one. [That could make quite a circus act.] Then I’m going to suck your cock. I won’t tire, my tongue never does. I’ll tease you until you’re furious and rigid in my mouth. When you finally cum [Heavens, where did that second “M” disappear to?], I want you to cum so hard-- MARCUS: --that I knock out the back of your throat—LIANA:—and scramble my brains.” [Wonderful how Naomi can wed the intellectual (Renaissance, read in bed) to the sexual. Wouldn’t you just love to be a fly on Naomi and Bruce’s bedroom wall?
Evenhanded as she is, Ms. Wallace gives you also a truly romantic moment, this between mother (55) and son (40). They have been secretly in touch for a time and clandestinely meeting for three weeks, but this is the first invitation to the couple for dinner. But what evolves? “SD: Marcus kisses Dore lightly first, then more deeply, and she responds. He envelops her in his arms like a lover. It is a quiet, focused moment of passion, restrained but therefore the desire all the more evident. Liana watches them frozen, mesmerized. Etc.” The upshot is that they leave together, though Marcus refuses to answer whether he “licked his mother’s cunt.” Dore advises Marcus, “If you still care for Liana, don’t leave her with hope.” And so the bestower of fabulous fellations is left abandoned, tireless tongue and all.
As Liana remarks: “Each of us is born with the smear of our mother’s cunt across our faces [Note the faulty agreement between “each” and “our.”] We carry it with us all our lives. A very, very few of us go back for more. That’s all.”
The third act takes place, six years later, in a small room off the side of a church chapel, with Marcus’s closed coffin on a table. Now Dora looks more youthful, even taller, elegant, fashionably though subtly dressed in black. Liana looks to have aged beyond her years, and has a slight limp. Though her clothes are worn, “ they still retain a sense of flair.” Note redundancy: flair is itself a kind of sense. A sense of sense? Dore’s shyness is gone, we read, “replaced by a calm steadfastness.” So we get here the female version of the Hotspur-Prince Hal reversal.
This act is a weird mixture of friendliness and hostility between the women (the latter more on Liana’s part). Liana even tries to strangle Dore but fails, yet causes Dore to piss herself. Dore tries to wipe it up with a tissue she has, but needs more and ask for one from Liana, who says she wouldn’t give it to her even if she had it. She does however give Dore her scarf, which her ex mother-in-law finishes the task with, then drapes the soiled scarf on the coffin to dry. Eventually, Liana rummages in the suitcase she carries and produces a pair of clean panties for Dore, who finds them “not very attractive,” but does put them on discreetly behind the coffin.
All kinds of nonsense passes between the women. Thus Dore declares, “Rain falls through me, not on me.” Liana explains why she quit her job without benefits: “Those days, unless you’re eating rabbits off the road, or can demonstrate, right there in the office, that you make a hot cuppa every morning, with small, measured spoons of your cat’s excrement, you don’t get any benefit. Instead, I got a fork stuck in my leg.”
About Marcus: LIANA: Did I care for him completely? No. Because I never cared for his feet. DORE: Neither did I. LIANA: He gave his feet too much attention. DORE: Yes, he did, as though they were . . . pets. LIANA: Always hold something back, a little piece of aversion keeps one inquisitive, cognizant. [Huh?] DORE: I did not have an aversion to his feet. I just couldn’t feel friendly towards them. They were too clean. LIANA: Clean the way feet shouldn’t be, and pink, and moist. DORE: The nails clipped straight across, no curves! LIANA: And his particularity with socks! [There follows a brief discussion of Marius’s socks, which I skip.] LIANA: To love one’s own feet with such diligence, such zeal. DORE: It’s suspect. LIANA: Always glancing down to make sure they were still there— DORE: As though they were two holy relics. Sometimes it seemed they actually gleamed in the dark! [It also seems as if those feet were more interesting than the play.]
No less absorbing is the explanation of Liana’s limp. She stabbed herself with a fork. Why a fork? “Anguish is elegant and for elegance one uses a knife: deep and smooth. However, when your insides have arranged themselves and are now hanging on your outside, I recommend a fork. There’s no pretence with a fork. (Beat) A more practical reason was to apply for sympathy.” Shouldn’t that be “appeal”? In any case, the wound got infected, and no benefit was incurred, only a limp.
Of some interest too are Ms. Wallace’s frequent lapses in grammar and usage, but this is getting too long and I’ll skip them. In the end, after that touching panty business, it may not come as a surprise that the women leave together as the play ends.
However, on the Signature stage, the director Bill Rauch introduced some chic ambiguity: Liana leaves, even as Dore’s gaze follows her amicably. The production was far better than the work deserved. There was good set and costume design, and the direction was effective. Bill Heck was fine as Marcus, but Ann Dowd was, in Acts One and Two, a bit too dowdy. Frumpy, more precisely. Why, in any case, does this intelligent woman, Dore, have to earn a living cleaning other people’s apartments? (That, to be sure, is very much in the script.) The stellar performance was the Liana of Dagmara Dominczyk, who was not only perfectly lovely, but always did everything right, elegant but also subtle, as Wallace says of her attire. I could go on for paragraphs about the admirable touches she brings to her silly part.
Well, dear reader, if you have gallantly kept up with this, let me explain the length of it. It’s not just to castigate Naomi Wallace, worthless as she is, but also to convey what is wrong with our theater, with those who write it, produce it, crown it with award upon award, heaping absurdity upon absurdity. And worst of all, the wretched theater critics, who contribute to rather than execrate this nonsense.