Some playwrights can both bruise and massage your soul, and if Edward Albee and Harold Pinter lead the category of writers whose whipcracking vigor can feel punishing at times, David Adjmi, whose play 3C is currently on view at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, also belongs to that group. His mixing of realism and absurdity evokes Albee, but kicked into a higher gear, where moods and emotions swerve wildly. Adjmi keeps his audience on its toes by constantly demonstrating how hysterical laughter can signal trauma, and cool civility hide cruel bigotry.
Adjmi's last play, Elective Affinities, was a one-woman show staged inside a parlor of an Upper East Side mansion. Interviewed by The House Next Door, Adjmi said he was attracted to the play's character, Alice Hauptmann, because she was an outsider, even though, with her WASP background, she didn't seem like one. Appearances were also important to Adjmi's first play, Stunning, about whose characters he said in The New York Times: "They try to create this hard wall of surface to suffice for their wounds—personal wounds, cultural wounds, historical wounds."
Wounds and appearances that mask them are central to 3C, in which not one character appears whole, or transparent. There are the two roommates: Connie, a blond bombshell whose sexual promiscuity masks a rape trauma, complicated by her ultra-religious upbringing, and Linda, a bookish, boyish type who worries people take her for a dyke. Into their universe enters Brad, a recently discharged Vietnam vet from Texas, and aspiring pastry chef, who also happens to be gay but hasn't come out, not even to his closest friend, Terry, with whom he's in love.
Out of these complexities (and complexes) Adjmi weaves a brazen situational comedy, with characters often speaking as if on a speed-dial, vomiting language, but hardly ever listening. This is perhaps the most bracing point of Adjmi's play, showing how trauma and shame don't necessarily make us more compassionate, but can wall us in, inside our own nightmares. The play is punctuated by groovy disco numbers, as if to underscore that all that sexy, slick glitter is a denial of psychic morass. The dancing has been choreographed by Deney Terrio, who taught John Travolta his moves for Saturday Night Fever. Terry, played by Eddie Cahill, is as close to a good natured, cocky charmer as one could get, and the entire ensemble is generally outstanding, with some of the most poignant moments belonging to Hannah Cabell's Linda. Under her smart-alecky armor, Cabell oozes fragility, teasing out tension from quiet moments. In a play so pumped with angst, she serves as an anchor, most fully realized. Brad, played by Jake Silbermann, comes close, but Adjmi has painted him too earnestly not to slip into melodrama. Mr. and Mrs. Whicker, the landlords, personify the horrors of '70s America: Mrs. Wicker, played by Kate Budeke, is too anxious to even take her tranquilizers. Budeke's cracking chain-smoker voice and disjointed gestures are apt for an edgy housewife who's so infantilized and oppressed by her loveless marriage she chooses to live as if on a different planet. Bill Buell, who plays Mr. Wicker, is brilliantly repellant as the play's villain: a Nixon-loving, homophobic WWII vet who bullies his wife and Brad, and masturbates Linda with as much passion as if he were fixing a leaking faucet.
While it's hard not to feel off kilter watching 3C, a tragicomedy that feels like an assemblage of brilliant, if not always seamlessly fitting, parts, it's equally hard not to admire Adjmi's dexterity with language. By making us laugh at awkwardness, he leaves us no choice but to share the characters' unease, while slowly revealing the play's darker meaning: Like Chekhov's three sisters, our trio of friends isn't headed anywhere in life; but unlike the dreamy Russians, the spacey Californians won't reach acceptance by laughing through their tears, which instead burn them to the bone like acid.
3C is a co-production of piece by piece productions, Rising Phoenix Repertory and Rattlestick Playwright Theater. For more information, click here.