The Longest Running Joke of the Twentieth Century
nytheatre.com review by Kimberly Wadsworth
August 13, 2008
About 20 years ago, Stephen O'Rourke was just out of college in Chicago and working at an Eddie Bauer to support a budding playwriting career. After a few months, he decided to look for a different "day job"—something more interesting, but with flexible hours that would let him write. Nothing too challenging.
So he became a social worker serving the mentally ill.
In The Longest Running Joke of the Twentieth Century, O'Rourke tells us about some of the people he met over the next 17 years, during which he first worked at a group home in Chicago and then at an outpatient program in New York, as a program director for a clinic in the Bronx. He never intended to make this a career, he tells us, but the people he meets fascinate him—from Leonard, who claimed once to have replaced his own hip and insists he invented the pigeon, to Stacey, who at first seems to be doing well at managing her condition until O'Rourke learns that the "boyfriend" she keeps referring to is Kyle Menendez. "We talk every night," Stacey gushes. "Telepathically. And the sex is amazing."
But this isn't just a zany romp—O'Rourke also tells us about the night one of his charges attempts to kill himself while under a psychotic break. The patient survives, but it's a horrifying and gruesome tale, and one which seems to haunt O'Rourke even today.
Director Jackman Draper has staged this tale simply, with nothing but a desk, a couple chairs, and some simple notebooks and other gewgaws for O'Rourke to work with; and O'Rourke plays it amusingly—there's even a sequence where O'Rourke uses some wittily-drawn flashcards to explain the various types of mental illness and delusion to the audience.
The one thing I wish is that I'd seen a bit more of O'Rourke himself. He gives wonderful descriptions of the people he met while working, and is a fantastic mimic (his depiction of the woman who tried to "ice skate" for him in her stocking feet is utterly endearing). But I was left wanting to know about more about how someone with his training did so well so quickly, or how he felt about his charges. O'Rourke does mention now and then how the work affected him, but these are more allusions than statements; and when he's not taking on a character, he has an air of bemused detachment. We do get to see a glimpse of something else at the very end, when O'Rourke discusses returning to social work after a two-year break to produce a play. The very last line of the piece is one of the most poignant final lines I've ever heard, and may actually explain his demeanor in the rest of the piece.
Still, this is an intriguing and entertaining work, striking a comfortable balance between humor and pathos, and introducing us to some of the characters that kept O'Rourke in this "temporary job" for 17 years.