Cast of 30 brings Thurber’s ‘crazy big play’ to life
The monsters in Lucy Thurber’s “Monstrosity” are perfectly nice American fascists — prep school kids and their housemasters, not quite what Sinclair Lewis foresaw in his 1935 “It Can’t Happen Here.” Closer to what Calder Willingham and Ben Gazzara were showing us at the Theater de Lys on Christopher Street in their 1953 “End As a Man.”
Ms. Thurber is herself the product of two prep schools, one in Northhampton, Massachusetts, one in Bath, Maine. “We had dress codes,” she says, but unlike the characters in her play, no uniforms.
It was nevertheless enough to put her in mind of “the similarity between the Hitler Youth movement and prep school”’; more yet, that “we as a species can at any given moment step over into fascism.”
The play that has had a longish gestation — 7½ to 8 years all told, until she was satisfied (or reasonably satisfied) with a script that squared with the vision that inspired it. “Two earlier versions didn’t work. Sometimes it takes a long time for your skill level to catch up with the dream in your head.”
The “totally ridiculous” (her words) production at the Connelly is a monstrosity in itself by Off-Off-Broadway standards: 12 main characters, a full cast of 30. “Very short rehearsal period, small budget,” a running time as of last week of 2¾ to 3 hours — “we’re still working on it” — not to mention a stage at several points littered with corpses.
“It’s a big play,” says its author — “so big that I’ve never been able to keep the whole thing in my head at one time. I told 13P (Thirteen Playwrights): ‘Hey, I’ve got this crazy big play,” and they said bring it in.
George Orwell gave us the image of fascism as a boot stamping forever on a human face, and there’s one moment in “Monstrosity” when one of its uniformed students puts his boot down on the throat of another. “I mean, who doesn’t like ‘1984,’ ” says Ms. Thurber, “but no, Orwell wasn’t consciously an influence.”
In “Monstrosity” the headmaster, in several senses of the word, is a man named Michael, who among much else has engineered the auto-crash murder of the parents of twins Patrick (a boy) and Tierney (a gutsy girl and future Fuhrer), but is now beginning to feel that, at 50, he’s tired of the game.
MICHAEL: I’m a little sick of revolution…What’s wrong with a little stability? Tierney’s taught us one thing, it’s a drag to always be enforcing martial law/ Always marching around killing people’s parents…It’s much easier to satiate the people. I’m much more interested in commodity. Maybe it’s time we all invested in a clean, powerful retirement. Plus I’m just too old for all this marching.
Michael isn’t the only one in this play to use top-heavy words like “satiate.” He and others are always uttering sententious, semi-insightful profundities like: “Hope, of course, is the first thing to die,” “Talent is an animal that lives inside you that must get out,” or (from the lips of victorious Tierney): “I’m frightened all the time. It’s how I know I’m alive.”
On the other hand, I’m glad to welcome such good old favorites as “mad as a hatter” (Lewis Carroll, thou should’st be living in this hour!) and (I can hear my mother saying it) “coo-coo in the head.”
Michael’s heir apparent, a straw man named Thomas, has words of wisdom for week-kneed Patrick:
You have something your sister doesn’t. Your sister is brave and bold and an excellent leader. She did what a sister should, she saw your weakness and pushed you through it…But that weakness is also your greatest strength. You consider first. You look and see. You are frightened…not through cowardice but through consideration. Consideration is the mark of the thinker, the mark of the politician, the mark of one who leads a nation, not one who just leads men.
I wonder what politician Thomas was thinking of.
Prep school wasn’t the only influence that feeds this play.
“I’m a romantic fantasy geek,” says Lucy Thurber. “In all the reading I did as a kid, none of the stories had a girl hero. Well, I’ve got a girl hero here.” Pause. “Several actually.”
She does indeed. There’s Tierney, who shoved timid brother Patrick off the cliff into the waters of initiation as a member of Michael’s uniformed guard; there’s Sarah, Michael’s own rebellious daughter; and there’s Layla, an itinerant spy whose passion is “to gather information.”
Some of these heroines love one another, n’est-ce-pas?
“Yes, Sarah and Tierney fall in love.”
And don’t some of the young men, too, fall in love with one another?
“No. With the male characters it’s friendship but not love.”
In point of fact, there are two sets of twins in “Monstrosity.” One pair is Patrick and Tierney. And the other is an anonymous couple of bicyclists (on a bicycle built for two) who pop in and out at scattered intervals to serve as narrators and chorus.
Lucy Thurber lives in the Inwood section of Manhattan “with my girlfriend of eight and a half years.” Which seems to roughly coincide with the beginnings of this play? “Yes, that’s right. And the bicycle twins actually came out of a weird dream my girlfriend had one night.”
The writer of “Monstrosity” and a half-dozen previous plays prefers not to give her birthday — “My grandmother told me never to do that” — but says the locale was Kingston, New York, “and then we lived all over the country until I was 9, and after that it was Western Massachusetts.”
By the way, is Lucy Thurber somehow related to a gentleman of letters named James Thurber?
“Well, the family story is that my grand-uncle Frank said we were cousins, and he wrote a letter to Thurber saying so. And Thurber wrote back: ‘I don’t care.’ ”
Do you like Thurber’s stuff?
“I do. Particularly ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.’ ”
That wonderful story would seem to apply to some of the people in this play of yours;
“Yes, indeed it does.”
Written by Lucy Thurber; Directed by Lear deBessonet.
A 13P (Thirteen Playwrights) production
July 9 through July 19
At the Connelly Theater, 220 East 4th Street
Call (866) 811-4111, or visit www.monstrositytheplay.com