nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
August 9, 2008
Medea is having a really bad week. Once a famous expert on paranormal phenomena, a raging case of agoraphobia has turned her into a shut-in running a dodgy psychic hotline. Her husband (Jason, of course), an ex-con and aspiring ping-pong champion, seems much closer to his mother-in-law than his wife, and although Medea is trying to repair the cracks in her marriage, it seems like she might have been pretty hateful to Jason herself, lately. And Medea's mother isn't helping matters any—in fact, other than spending most of her time playing with her grandsons' toys (they're off at summer camp, for most of the play anyway, and the mother's not entirely in touch with reality), her main form of interaction appears to be trying to drive a wedge between her daughter and son-in-law. Is it any surprise that this all ends in a murder/suicide spree? (As, of course, does the Greek tragedy on which playwright Aimee Gonzalez has somewhat loosely based Scratch.)
But where Medea mines the bleakest of human emotions, culminating in a murder driven by raw grief, Scratch is striving for tragedy reinvented as the darkest of comedy. Although it has some powerful scenes, and the very concept of adding Medea's mother into the mix is wonderfully comic, the piece overall can't sustain either the manic whimsy of farce or the deep irony of black comedy. We see a marriage on the rocks, a couple that's bored with each other, but the emotional stakes—the heat between them—are already so low that Medea's ultimate turn to revenge doesn't pack the punch it should. And even the form that revenge takes, which should pack a punch even if played as dark comedy, feels under-motivated. Many of the play's specific details often feel either random—why ping-pong?—or exposition-heavy, rather than intrinsic to the characters or cleverly evolved from the source material, and Medea and Jason's children seem to fall into the latter category; we need them for the story to work, but they don't feel like a real presence in the play.
Some of the most important character traits, too, don't feel emotionally grounded. Medea's agoraphobia is talked about incessantly, called a symptom of the rot in Jason and Medea's marriage, blamed for her lack of interest in his ping-pong career—but treated so much like a matter of course that there's never any genuine fear or emotions attached to it until the very end of the play; it seems more like a mild nuisance. What's with their criminal past and his jail term, alluded to but not fully explained? Since the marriage has been clearly on the rocks from the beginning, what has changed to make Medea so suddenly interested in fixing it? If Medea's mother has clearly seen since the beginning of the marriage that the relationship with Jason is emotionally crippling Medea, what brings her to start sharing that with her daughter now?
Director Meiyin Wang has staged some inspired bits of physical comedy, mostly involving a plethora of ping-pong balls. Laura Heidinger, as Medea's mother, gives the strongest performance, blithely wreaking havoc from her own dysfunctional state. Heidinger also has the most fluidly written role; freed from the source material, Gonzalez seems to do her strongest work. KK Moggie, as Medea, comes alive when she gets to play the vicious Medea, snarling insults at Jason, but she and Adam Tsekhman's Jason don't have a lot of stage chemistry, which lowers the audience's investment in their relationship, and their story, even further.