People Are Living There: Don't Bother Knocking
When is an Athol Fugard play not really an Athol Fugard play? Well, when the action is switched from Johannesburg, South Africa to Elizabeth, New Jersey it's probably a strong hint that what you're about to witness isn't exactly the work of this fine playwright, known mostly for "MASTER HAROLD"... and the boys and other plays set against the background of apartheid.
According to the play's press notes, when director Suzanne Shepherd, a long-time friend of the author and interpreter of his work, phoned Fugard with the idea of mounting this production of his 1969 piece, he insisted that she make some cuts, claiming the play was overwritten. He also wanted the characters' local accents to be eliminated. Since this was one of only two plays by Fugard that did not deal with apartheid, Shepherd thought it would be interesting to move the action to a heavily accented region off the turnpike. Local references had to be changed, of course, and I imagine much of the dialogue had to be altered to accommodate a different speech pattern. Fugard approved of all her changes without ever having read the script and it's assumed he had nothing to do with this production.
Gone is any hint of the poetic lyricism so prominent in his other works. Whether the writing and directing of Shepherd is to blame or if it's simply a weak play to begin with, what you get is a yawn-inducing hour and a half of noisy, whiny, unlikeable stereotypes in what I believe was meant to be a life-affirming comedy/drama.
Milly (O'mara Leary), an annoyingly loud and shrill woman is spending her 50th birthday yelling at the walls whenever her unseen former beau (gee, I wonder why he left her) plays his music too loudly. Seems he's a tenant in her unkempt boarding house (terrifically detailed set by Roger Mooney) and has been getting away with living rent-free. Other occupants include Don (Larry Silverberg), a slow-talking recluse amateur therapist (they're the worst kind) and Shorty (Ben Rauch), a baby-faced young boxer who works as a delivery boy and is either a bit mentally challenged or a bit punch-drunk. Shorty is married to Sissy (Emma Myles), who wins the competition for thickest Jersey accent of the night. Sissy has yet to have sex with her husband of six months because she's too busy doing it with other guys. But she does enjoy teasing hubby by writing "bad boy" on his forehead in lipstick.
There are also silkworms involved. I believe they symbolize something.
Milly's ex has a hot date that night, but she's determined to show him she doesn't care a lick for him anymore by having a big, boisterous birthday party going on when he gets home. But since this is a four character play I think you can imagine who the only guests are.
Perhaps with a return to the author's original setting and language People Are Living There could have been an interesting piece about human loneliness among those with no social skills, but the dull dialogue played by a cast displaying no more than surface emotions allows the evening to do little more than trudge along.
Photos by Richard Termine: Top: Ben Rauch, O'mara Leary and Larry Silverberg
Center: Ben Rauch, O'mara Leary, Larry Silverberg and Emma Myles
Bottom: O'mara Leary and Larry Silverberg