BWW Reviews: Forum Theatre's PLUTO Delves into the Surreal
PLUTO, the new play by Steve Yockey now playing at Forum Theatre as part of the National New Play Network's Rolling World Premier, is laden with mythological symbols scattered about a most ordinary looking kitchen inhabited by a seemingly normal mom and her 20ish-year-old son. There is the three-headed dog, Cerebus, named for the mythological creature that guarded the underworld. There is Death, who, grim-reaper like, rumbles behind the door of the ordinary looking refrigerator, seeking access to the latest of the newly dead. And then, there is the macabre backstory of the young man's father who died laughing hysterically in his sleep, clad in the new green pajamas sold to him by Death as a salesman at the local mall.
This, we quickly realize, is no ordinary kitchen after all, and these, heartbreakingly, are no ordinary folk. The time--we are reminded many times--is, was, and perhaps ever will be, 9:30 am.
The slumping, slightly bed-headed young man, Bailey Miller, we come to realize in horror, has just murdered twelve people on the campus of his community college, then killed himself, at 9:30 that morning, when the burden of his alienation overwhelmed him and he exploded in a eruption of destruction like those visited upon our society today with terrifying regularity.
He used his dead father's guns, the father whose unexplained death has driven a wedge between the young man and his mother all these years, a chasm that his mother, in this frozen moment of time, desperately tries to bridge over the course of the play. She finally gives in to his pleadings; your father, she tells him, died of laughing in his sleep.
Death by laughing must surely be a case of life imitating art, and PLUTO is clearly a play of such surreal dimensions. Bailey's mother, Elizabeth Miller, found the whole affair so disturbingly bizarre that she has refused to discuss it. Her son, however, whom she had discovered laughing hysterically as she entered her kitchen a few minutes earlier, takes the manner of his father's death in stride, for indeed, he too is no stranger to the bizarre. What does it mean, one asks, to die by laughing? A quick Internet search nets a handful of real and fictional examples. A 3rd century BC Greek Stoic philosopher (an ironic twist), Chrysippus, died from laughing after seeing a donkey eat his figs. Fast forward a few thousand years to 2003 and one learns that a Thai ice cream salesman apparently died while laughing in his sleep. Switch over to the fictional world and examples abound, many in cartoons meant for children, others in darker literature meant for jaded adults. In the 2003 Batman movie, for example, Jack Nicholson's Joker-which brought that villain ever closer to the hinter regions of human depravity-kills with a poison that thrusts his victims into uncontrollable, deadly manic laughter.
Laughter as a lethal force. That is dark. But playwright Yockey does not shrink from it, nor from any other abyss hiding surrealistically beneath the surface of things. In PLUTO, laughter seems to take on a life of its own, a spontaneous force over which one has no control, a spasm of absurdity, of the irreconcilable randomness of the universe. Director Michael Dove underscores the invisible forces that damn the damaged. He overlays a casual normalcy on a backdrop of unthinkable tragedy, and the actors embrace this paradox and bring it home.
Mark Halpern's aimless Bailey is every mother's everyson, and it is heartbreaking to watch his narrative of destruction play out. Halpern gives the young man a disarming familiarity. He's a down-on-himself community college student who has a hard time with schoolwork and a harder time finding friends. Halpern plays Bailey with the deadpan irritability of an adolescent slouching toward adulthood, his low threshold for frustration and pain of isolation in hand.
He lives with his mom, played by Jennifer Mendenhall with a perfect pitch combination of world-weary flipness and authentic reaching out. If only, Mendenhall's mother shows us, she could reverse time, reconnect to her only child, heal his wounds, and guide him safely to manhood after all. If only they could go back to the time when Pluto was a planet. Mendenhall is a nuanced study in modern momhood, and its three steps forward, two steps back cha cha of gentle sarcasm and pleading.