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Blur, at MTC Stage II

We had tickets to a play tonight, but because I still haven’t done much with my 2001 calendar, I didn’t know, until Kathleen checked the ticket drawer (her calendar is in order), what show the tickets were for. At about three in the afternoon, Kathleen called to ask if I knew anything about the play – Blur at the Manhattan Theatre Club – because she was tied up with a Singapore deal and was thinking about cutting it. I told her that I wouldn't mind going alone, and then proceeded to get all wrapped up in something myself. About five or ten minutes after I ought to have started to get dressed, I decided to look up Blur in a magazine to see if there was anything special about it, because if there wasn’t anything special about it, I'd cut it, too.  

A glance at TONY made me reach for the phone. Late, but not too late, in the day, I'd discovered that Polly Draper is in the cast. So of course we would go. Polly Draper is an off-Broadway eminence, not to mention a star of ‘thirtysomething,’ and once I woke up to her being in the play, I changed my mind about staying home. But there was an even greater reason for Kathleen to change hers. Polly’s sister, Becky, sang in the Smithereens with Kathleen in college, and while we don’t get to see as much of Becky as we’d like (she is a Bay Area native and stalwart), she is far too good a friend to have to listen to Kathleen mumble about not having seen Polly because of Singapore deals. Blur could have been written in Urdu and we’d have gone.

We were both very lucky with trains. Aside from the subway rides, MTC is not even three blocks from our apartment, and it's even closer to Kathleen’s office. So each of us got to City Center in time to sit through the inevitable twelve-minute delay. 

Blur, by Melanie Marnich, is about a seventeen year-old girl, Dot DiPrima (Angela Goethals) who’s losing her eyesight to a rare congenital disease that, like hemophilia, ordinarily afflicts only men and is invariably carried by the mother. Polly Draper plays the mother. She plays the mother in a thin but long cotton housedress that she wears as if she’d worn housedresses all her life. It frightened the Times' reviewer, Bruce Weber, into worrying that Polly is too thin. I think he ought to have seen good acting instead of a cause of concern. There was nothing fashionable about the mother's exhausted emaciation. The play’s milieu is never specified, but it takes place in the kind of dingy American environment whose denizens claim, against the evidence, to belong to the middle class, and Mom (quite unlike Polly) altogether lacks the education to help her understand that her daughter’s illness is not a punishment for something - perhaps her brief contact with Dot's father. 

The total impalpability of this offstage figure, never named, never described, never indicted by Mom or Dot for any particular emotional crimes, characterizes the weightless rush of Blur. Barreling through a coming-of-age that would be perfectly unremarkable if it weren't for Dot's deteriorating eyesight, the play raises many issues, but we follow them only because we care about Dot. She makes us laugh, and she makes us wince, but if she makes us think, her creator doesn't help us out much. Perhaps thinking things out isn't very important: Kathleen was greatly moved by the play's finely-acted gallery of outsiders, and whenever I complained, afterward, that Ms Marnich hadn't articulated this or that theme, she would have none of it. "Why do things have to be articulated?" she asked. Good question. Why did the stirring performances satisfy Kathleen but not me? 

The power of produced plays springs from the economy with which they harness the various powers of the theatre. The most elemental force of any production is the actor's impact: the 'magic of the theatre' consists in the occupation of the stage by a stranger who persuades us to take more interest in fictional affairs than we take in our own. This production of Blur, directed by MTC Artistic Director Lynne Meadow, works this magic. But Blur itself neglects the mastery of words that, to my mind, constitutes any written play's most vital contribution to dramatic excitement. If there is an art to playwriting, it lies in providing the actors with a structure that calls forth complex, considered gestures from the actors, and and then giving them words of the same caliber. The cast of Blur sounded depths of existential mystery with speech and movement, but the words that its members were obliged to speak rattled around the stage. Only once did Ms Marnich provide a character with the kind of concentrated, resonant speech that flurries the mind with connections. Visiting a Braille library, Dot is disturbed by a stranger whom we can't make out because the lighting has been dropped to a spot that dimly picks out Dot and her big pale book. The stranger insists on telling Dot about the dreams that she will have when she loses her sight altogether, and his lyrical, erotically-charged talk of solitary flight takes wing. But when the lights come up on the following scene, banality returns. One might suspect that Ms Marnich is so afraid of overwrought lines that she can only hear them with the lights turned off. Her play's title does not describes Dot's drama, which has little, in fact, to do with going blind, so much as it does the effect of its uninflected verbiage.

The four other people in Dot’s life, besides her mother and the understated, helpless ophthalmologist who diagnoses her condition (Ken Marks), are Frances, a would-be punk (Susan Pourfar), Joey, a friend of Frances’s a 'habitat hygienist' at the zoo, and with whom Dot falls in not unrequited love (Chris Messina), and Father O'Hara, a priest whose faith in the God of the Catholic Church is irreparably shaken by Dot’s blindness (Bill Raymond). Aside from the doctor, everyone in the play is, as I say, an outsider, and if Blur has something excellent to offer, it's insight into the awkwardness that hampers outsiders' attempts to connect with one another. At one point or another, each of the three young people denounces the others as losers, and in Mom's eyes they're all bad. It's heartbreaking to see that people deprived of so much of the world's good by bad luck and limitations must also fight so hard for the free gift of friendship. And it's a pity that Melanie Marnich didn't labor to make her insight more eloquent. (May 2001)

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