Indiscretions has easy laughs but leaves you feeling empty

Jean Cocteau, famed writer, director, designer, filmmaker and creator of the classic film Beauty and the Beast, supposedly wrote Indiscretions — originally called Les Parents Terrible — in 1938, during eight opium-hazed days. The central figure is Yvonne, an irrational, suicidal, diabetic woman who terrorizes her husband, George, and completely dominates and infantilizes Michael, her twenty-year-old son. Yvonne's sister, Leo, who lives with the family, is nursing a frustrated, decades-long love for George. The spur to the play's action is Michael's confession that he finally has a girlfriend, a book binder named Madeleine. The news sends Yvonne into a predictable frenzy, and, hoping to appease her, George — who has a secret of his own — and Leo figure out a scheme to torpedo the young couple's relationship. Leo eventually has a change of heart; what she stands to gain from it becomes apparent toward the play's end.

As I watched the Germinal Stage's Indiscretions, I couldn't figure out just what I was supposed to make of all the craziness. Was Cocteau doing the Monster Mother riff so trendy during the first part of the last century? If so, he wasn't being nearly as daring or blackly funny as Arthur Kopit in Oh, Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Bad, which came out around twenty years later and made the devouring female's malice so vast it became archetypal. Perhaps Cocteau intended the play as pure farce, in which case we'd expect it to be swifter and less wordy — but it could be that the production fails him. Despite the ugly clutter of their life together, the family he depicted was wealthy, Parisian and middle-class; the cleanliness and light of Madeleine's attic home was intended as a contrast. Director Ed Baierlein's program notes say his version "highlights the satire of bourgeois values and Jerry Springer-like melodramatic intrigues inherent in the script," and that seems self-contradictory. First of all, the people we're seeing on stage aren't bourgeois at all: They're trashy, with broad, undefined accents that swing somewhere between the American South and the West (and we also get some very jolly cowboy songs during scene changes). Springer's people, existing as they do somewhere in the crawliest margins of society, aren't bourgeois, either. And this Madeleine is no contrast to the family: She's an odd, hard-faced, posturing girl who sports a gasp-inducing, thong-created whale tail.

You can always trust Baierlein to find interesting corners of theater history to bring to light and explore, and it doesn't hurt to be brain-teased and puzzled once in a while. Nor is there anything wrong with reinterpreting a text, as he's done here. Or eschewing realism. But this production, though gutsy, just doesn't make sense. With the exception of Chip Winn Well's fairly inexpressive Leo, every part is played as broadly as possible. Leroy Leonard's George is a sullen dope; Royce Wood shows some innocence and kindness as Michael but descends into whining and poutiness after losing Madeleine. At least Kirsten Deane's Madeleine is often very funny — particularly her furious and perfectly timed gum-popping — and so is Erica Sarzin Borrillo, who, as Yvonne, poses, staggers, shrieks, falls and clatters her teeth like a furious ferret, magnificent in her willingness to submit body and soul to the grotesquerie of the role.

I can't help feeling that this stagey presentational style and the defiant, we-don't-care-that-no-one-anywhere-actually-sounds-like-this speech patterns are becoming a little too habitual for Germinal. I left the theater understanding no more than I had before about the value of Cocteau's play, what it might have told me about theatrical convention, the author himself, the tenor of his times or the human condition. The laughs came easy, but the experience felt empty.

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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