'Mud' at New City Theater. Anya Kazanjian

You'd be forgiven for thinking that Mud, a short and bitter play by María Irene Fornés, is just about poor people. Its three characters look like they're from a Dorothea Lange photograph—two are literally caked in dirt; one is slightly cleaner in a ratty suit jacket and tie—and the set is a small square of battered wooden floorboards and furniture. But Fornés, an 85-year-old Cuban American playwright known for her work in the avant-garde, is after bigger game: us. Mud is about poor people like Waiting for Godot is about hobos.

Mae (Mary Ewald) and Lloyd (Tim Gouran) live on the dusty wooden square, separated from the up-close audience by a floor-to-ceiling membrane of translucent fabric. (This production, directed by John Kazanjian, seats only 20 people.) They're not quite siblings and not quite lovers—they grew up together but have been "mates" in the past. When Mud begins, she's ironing and he's hunched in a corner, trying to convince her that he "got it up" yesterday. She doesn't believe him, so he points to a spot on the wall, claiming that's where he'd ejaculated. She's still skeptical. They curse each other for a while: He mocks her for going to school; she says he's a "pig" who "stinks" and will die in the mud. "I'm going to die in a hospital," she announces. "In white sheets. You hear? Clean feet. Injections... I'm going to die clean."

Lloyd is ill but refuses to go to the clinic. Mae goes for him, the doctors give her a pamphlet, and she invites a man in a tie named Henry (George Catalano) inside to read it for them. He barely can, but Mae asks him to dinner, setting the tragedy in motion: Henry, seemingly more dignified and "clean" than the sick and sniveling Lloyd, becomes master of the shack. But while Henry is more sophisticated, Mae learns he's also capable of meanness and cruelty, and the worm—in this case, her previous relationship with Lloyd—begins to turn.

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Fornés has written Mud in 17 short scenes, little dramatic snapshots that form a collage of bleak futility. Its only scraps of comedy come in sad bursts, as when Lloyd barely summons enough strength to flip off Henry while he's not looking and mouth "Fuck! You!" before slumping back to the ground with a self-satisfied grin. Ha-ha.

All three performances feel more restrained and symbolic than realistic—though Gouran, as the suffering Lloyd, comes closer to flesh-and-blood humanity—but that suits the stylized text just fine. (And is far preferable to the actors trying to ham up the play's sad tension.) "If I didn't remember things," Henry lectures during one dinner, "I would feel that I don't know them. I like to learn things so that I can live according to them. According to my knowledge... Lloyd, do you like to learn things?" Lloyd lifts his head from his plate. "What is it that I haven't learned?" On the night I attended, a few people in the audience laughed—but it was an uneasy laugh. recommended

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