How do you review a play, such as Young Jean Lee’s Pullman, WA, that sets out to be annoying? Should you judge it strictly on its successes in the arena of spectator irritation, under the theory that the more it annoys you the better it is? And if that’s the case, what do you do when, on the whole, you are rather more charmed than annoyed by the whole affair? Should this be taken as a token of the show’s failure?
Don’t mistake me: the show certainly has its annoying elements. A bright, stark light (courtesy of lighting designer Eric Dyer, of Radiohole) shines on the audience and the unadorned stage with deadening monotony throughout the entire piece. Lee’s script, the elements of which never coalesce into anything remotely resembling plot, character, setting, or any of the other hallmarks of mainstream drama, consists primarily of harangues, putdowns, and creaky platitudes spoken directly to the audience, occasionally straight into the faces of particular viewers. Self-indulgent monologues go on for far too long before trailing off into puzzling whirlpools of nonsense.
So what makes Pullman, WA so enjoyable? The obvious reference point for a piece like this is Austrian writer Peter Handke’s 1966 play Offending the Audience, which isn’t so much a play as an aggressive critical lecture lobbed at the audience by a crew of coldly superior actors, intended to subvert everyone’s expectations of what should happen when they enter a theatre. Despite some surface similarities, however, Lee’s piece differs in that it doesn’t so much flirt with postmodern critical polemic as make each audience member hyper-aware of his or her reactions to the show as it proceeds—an experience made both more and less comfortable by the forced realization that everybody else is doing the exact same thing.
The evening is initiated by pleasingly befuddled Pete Simpson, who enters the space alone and, after some hemming and hawing, promises that he can instruct the audience “how to live.” After a lengthy speech that knocks against every self-help notion on the books, it is understandable to wonder what the hell might be going on. Eventually, Simpson is joined by Tory Vazquez, who, possessed of a broad, friendly grin, proceeds from winsomely childlike descriptions of birthday parties and unicorns to universal yet stinging accusations of failure and ineptitude aimed squarely at us, the gathered observers. After a certain queasy interval of this, Thomas Bradshaw enters, offering, with comic bravado, to save us with Christianity.
That these three opposing figures, who spend the rest of the play digressing, falling apart, going on tangents, and poking at any raw feeling idiotic enough to expose itself, are meant to represent various aspects of a single whole seems clear enough. But a whole of what? Ourselves? Humanity? Young Jean Lee? (The piece is, after all, named for her hometown, which is never referred to within the text.)
Perhaps if there were an answer to this, Pullman, WA wouldn’t be as interesting. It would certainly be less interesting if the performers were less watchable and the writing less imaginative. Simpson, Vazquez, and Bradshaw (all credited with co-creating the show) each have distinct comic personas, and their carefully stilted relationships to the audience and each other are a delightful cascade of variations on the themes of discomfort and faeade. And Lee’s verbal fluency displays imagination and bite: she is a shrewd anatomist of universal human feelings who can also serve up vividly horrifying dreams about dead mermaids.
Does it add up to much? It was certainly an interesting hour or so at the theatre, spent simultaneously in solitary consideration and public communion. Of course, I was sitting in an audience that seemed willing to play along with Lee’s brand of confrontation. It would be fascinating to see the show with people unaccustomed to such tactics; maybe then there’d be something worth getting annoyed about.