Actor Hannah Victoria Franklin does her best work when she's playing a specific strain of human viciousness—roaring, sneering, sarcastic, intoxicated, and destructively promiscuous. (Can someone organize an all-female festival of Mamet plays for her to star in? That could be Franklin's apotheosis.) She played that kind of sexy beast in Tommy Smith's White Hot at West of Lenin in 2012 and is bringing the scary back for Tall Skinny Cruel Cruel Boys, a world premiere at Washington Ensemble Theater.
In Boys, Franklin plays Brandy, a successful children's birthday party clown whose recreational activities would drive the mothers who hire her around the bend—she drinks heavily, serially screws off-limits guys (usually entertaining fathers and teenagers after she's finished entertaining the tots), and gambles like a fiend. She lives as if the innocence of her day job is a stain that must be scrubbed away with broken glass and vomit.
The play, by Caroline V. McGraw, is heavy on clowning and puppetry to communicate its point. (It was directed by Jane Nichols, who has taught clowning at the Yale School of Drama.) Children are represented by Cabbage Patch–esque dolls, and Brandy's inner demons are represented by a literal demon under her bed with big red claws that creep out at night to lovingly and menacingly scratch at her body. The metaphor is a little ham-fisted, as is the growing red scab on her chest, which begins to recede when she makes her late-stage reversal back into a more moderate way of living.
The plot, moreover, is not particularly rich—she's a train wreck, the train wreck gets worse, she turns over a new leaf—but thanks to the cast and Nichols's direction, the characters are almost universally delightful to watch. Jay Myers plays Jack, a fresh-faced high-school student, with gleeful innocence, merrily tangling himself in Brandy's poisonous web without realizing how awful things might get. And Samie Spring Detzer brings a more pugnacious innocence to the character of Tash, Jack's high-school girlfriend—an Encyclopedia Brown–style youth-sleuth who figures out what's going on and, unexpectedly, saves everyone from themselves.
But Boys belongs to Franklin, who plays Brandy with a level of knowing self-destruction that is, at times, frightening. The old archetype of the sad, drunk clown is a cliché, but Franklin's combination of bile and smile—and a heartbreaking scene where she performs, under duress, a pantomime of her own arc of debasement—can be jarring. She's like a marshmallow with a core of creosote. Even though her character's reversal is sudden and not terribly well-explained, one still breathes a sigh of relief during the final fade to black when she laughs a real laugh—and not just a laugh that's a thinly veiled snarl.
The title character of Tony Kushner's monologue Homebody makes the opposite kind of transition. She begins as austere and almost ostentatiously sexless, sipping tea in her home and talking to us about her boring life—distant husband, antidepressants, a cartoonishly sterile middle-class life—juxtaposed with her fixation on the tumultuous and bloody history of Afghanistan. She talks in a precise but loopy manner, which she admits is difficult to listen to:
I speak... I can't help myself. Elliptically. Discursively. I've read too many books, and that's not boasting, for I haven't read many books, but I've read too many, exceeding I think my capacity for syncresis—is that a word?—straying rather into synchisis, which is a word. So my diction, my syntax, well, it's so irritating, I apologize, I do, it's very hard, I know.
Synchysis (the script spells it "synchisis") has a few definitions, including a poetic structure favored by Latin poets, but she's using it in the sense of "borderline incomprehensible." Yet Homebody, played with an elegant and transfixing reserve by Mary Ewald, sells herself short. Her situation—a white woman fantasizing about exotic Afghanistan on the eve of its collision with US bombs—is only too clear, and strangely prescient. Homebody began as a monologue Kushner wrote for an actor he admired, and it grew into the lengthy play Homebody/Kabul. (Some say it didn't grow so much as metastasize—I've never seen the full play, but several critics argue that the Homebody seed is much more successful than Homebody/Kabul.) Eerily, Homebody/Kabul was written before the 9/11 attacks and has become more eerie as time has lurched on. It's a commentary about well-educated people sitting in well-appointed rooms thinking they understand Afghanistan (or any faraway place) because they've read a few books on the subject. We know now that our collective failure to recognize the limits of our own ignorance can have bloody consequences. (In an afterword to the published version of the play, Kushner writes that "eerily prescient" has been used so many times to describe it, his boyfriend began joking that it should become the playwright's drag name: Eara Lee Prescient.)
Homebody fantasizes from her prim world about this far-off land that has been conquered so many times in the past 5,000 years—and she wants it to conquer her. By the end, she's telling us of an errand she ran to buy some festive Afghan-style hats for a party. She presumes the shopkeeper is from Afghanistan and notices that three of his fingers have been hacked off. She immediately sexualizes his mutilation, imagining herself making love to him beneath a tree in Kabul. Of course, there is nothing wrong with making love to a mutilated Afghan man beneath a tree in Kabul, but Kushner ever so delicately reveals the grossness of a privileged woman erotizing the oppressed and brutalized as an antidote to her own neurosis and fear of the world. Sexualizing suffering—real-deal, historical suffering—is an especially pernicious strain of Orientalism. (In the full version of Homebody/Kabul, Homebody actually goes to Afghanistan and meets reality by coming to a grisly end.)
But Ewald's performance is a thrilling exercise in hesitation and restraint (her talents are the opposite of Franklin's). By the end of the monologue, we adore Homebody, sitting and prattling at her table, delicately stacking her Afghan hats, and glancing off to her left where a violent red light occasionally beams through the lath of a busted plaster wall. We feel intimate with her—not least because the play is performed in a very small room for only a handful of audience members—and her being torn between fantasy and reality. Or, as she puts it, her state of being "suspended in the Rhetorical Colloidal Forever that agglutinates between Might and Do."