A Saturation Farce

The more I think about The Wall of Water, currently being produced by the Hunger Artists Theatre, the more I like it. Playwright Sherry Kramer is obviously a comic talent to watch. The script is farcical, swift and funny, but it touches on all kinds of major themes: madness and healing, naming and identity, anger and affection. It questions the existence of suffering and answers our yearning for religion by providing an on-stage god -- a doctor transformed into a deity because he ate a dish prepared by a madwoman. The whole thing is a festering, bubbling, candy-colored stew of passion, confusion and wildly clashing desires.

Four women live in a large, rent-controlled New York apartment. Meg can usually control the anger seething beneath her competent exterior with a long, hot shower, but roommate Wendi is pushing her to the edge. Wendi is mad. Not angry, like Meg, but insane. Out of it. Nuts. Innocently destructive, perpetually bewildered and a touch malicious.

Judy is a well-known doctor, an allergist who believes that we're all allergic to almost everything, including each other, and that even the act of conception is complicated by the allergic reaction of egg to sperm and sperm to egg. She's searching for a food that will reverse this effect. The doctor she dates is a researcher trying to discover a cure for cancer, and she rejects him because, she says, "You are into disease and I am into life." The irony is obvious. Finally, there's the fourth roommate, Denice. She's probably the smartest of the four, but she's decided to live as a party girl and to sleep only with men whose photographs appear in the New York Times.

For the first act, these women have the stage to themselves. Meg, tormented by a cheerful Wendi, becomes more and more homicidal -- or femicidal -- while Judy and Denice bicker over who gets to tell her that taking care of Wendi is the price she must pay for staying in the apartment.

By act two, the men are on the scene: Meg's old lover, Jack, who wants her back; John, the nurse sent to sedate Wendi and take her away; Judy's doctor boyfriend and the psychiatrist, Gig. There are mixed-up missives, frantic exits and entrances, confused identities and moments of near-recognition that rapidly dissolve into the general mayhem. This isn't the controlled chaos of, say, Michael Frayn's Noises Off, where the action is tightly engineered and every element introduced turns out -- usually with a satisfying, almost audible click -- to have its place (even if the place is only a stop on the road to dissolution). This feels looser; some threads are less relevant than others. In the end, everything does cohere, but only sort of, and after you've thought about it. I don't want to resort to stereotype, but The Wall of Water feels more female; it shows a quick, engaging mind rushing through all kinds of odd and tantalizing associations.

Pacing is everything in a play like this, and sometimes the timing of this production, otherwise ably directed by Jacob T. Morehead, is a bit off. This is something that may resolve itself as the run continues. The four women playing Meg, Wendi, Judy and Denice all have talent, and every one of them has at least one revelatory moment: Lindsay Goranson as Denice, describing her Trekkie lover's Scottish-flavored orgasm; Kimberly Luckie's Judy using the bathroom sink as a pulpit as she declaims her passion for the food of life; Meg, played by Sara Hardesty, musing about the healing power of water; and Laura Steele, who makes mad Wendi slow, earnest and oddly appealing rather than frantic, doing a soothing dance alone in her bedroom. But none of these women is entirely grounded in her role. The play may require speed, but it doesn't require an obvious sense of hurry, and even a ditzy character can have a certain centeredness and weight. Luckie, in particular, becomes shrill whenever Judy is agitated.

The men are more consistent. Robert Kramer is strong as Stuart, the cancer researcher, and Andy Anderson's transformation from nerdy, cartoonish Gig to a muscle-bound god figure is terrific. I like Jake Hyland's Jack when he's wide-eyed and wondering, less when he yells or blubbers. John Jurcheck's hapless John is, I suspect, more sympathetic and less of a caricature than the playwright intended, which is a good thing. His opening monologue is hilarious, and you really have to feel for him throughout. Ouch.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman

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