Strangers and Linguish
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 15, 2006
The components of this double bill of one-act plays share the same author and director (Edward Einhorn) and the same overriding concern (loss of brain function), but in terms of tone and outlook they couldn't be more different. They make for an interesting combination.
Strangers is about a man named Richard and a woman named Sylvia who meet in some kind of waiting room iin a series of vignettes over a period of days or perhaps even weeks or months. Richard's perky speech habits ("Hiya!"; "I'm in the pink!") belie something serious just under the surface; it's apparent fairly quickly that he's suffering from some kind of neurological disorder that has affected his memory rather severely. To say much more about what happens in this play will ruin it, I fear: delicately, stealthily, and insidiously, Einhorn's script mimics Richard's disease to deliver a potent reflection on how such a condition might feel to the victim and to those closest to him.
Peter Bean gives one of his trademark excellent performances as Richard, capturing all of the anxiety, fear, frustration, and hopelessness of a complicated man who, stripped of much of his own essence, is struggling not to become a tragic figure. Nancy Nagrant does excellent work as Sylvia, serving as both our guide into Richard's muddied consciousness as well as our surrogate, coping with the natural conflicted human reaction (anger and pity) to dealing with such a man. Touching, stark, and entirely unsentimental, Strangers is a smart, mature, highly effective one-act drama.
Linguish splits its focus among four people who have been brought together under quarantine, all having been exposed to (and expected to develop symptoms of) some insidious plague that strikes at the human memory. It turns out that this disease can take varying forms, and so we watch John lose his ability to remember the names and meanings of things, his one-time girlfriend Sandy succumb to a Tourette-like condition which causes her to chatter ceaselessly and to spew unintentional profanities, housemate Michael develop laughing fits and become unable to form complete words, and fourth housemate Beth turn into a kind of human parrot who can only repeat words and phrases she's just heard.
Linguish differs from Strangers (and the other entries in NEUROfest) by hypothesizing a fictional, even fantastical disease; consequently it feels a bit like science fiction and more than a bit like a fairy tale (are our protagonists suffering from the mental condition they most fear?). It's also more lighthearted than Strangers, even concluding with an unexpectedly upbeat ending that suggests that Einhorn's main theme here is that connection in whatever kind of "language" is more important to our survival than sophisticated, orderly communication.
The cast of Linguish includes Bean (John), again offering a splendid performance; Josephine Cashman (Beth), luminous and warm as a psychologist who spends most of her time in the play trying to keep her housemates "sane"; Uma Incrocci (Sandy), finding the kindness and frustration in this character, a schoolteacher; and Ken Simon (Michael), blustery and curmudgeonly as a lawyer who loses the ability to speak. Maxwell Zener completes the ensemble in a variety of roles, of which the silent "outsider" who makes periodic deliveries of provisions to the quarantined household is perhaps the most memorable.
Both plays are neatly staged by Einhorn and feature effective production values (sets and lighting are by Alex Senchak, costumes by Carla Gant). William Niederkorn's original music, especially his discordant, staccato rhythms and tones for Strangers, is especially effective.