The Vision Disturbance of Christina Masciotti
Christina Masciotti grew up in Reading, the southeastern Pennsylvania city where she has set many of her plays. Since moving to New York, she has worked with The New Group and the New York City Players, and her work has been presented at venues in New York, Pennsylvania and Athens. Her characters often wind up in Reading after growing up in Greece, and view its social world from an émigré’s distance. In Vision Disturbance, her new Richard Maxwell-directed play, Patras-born Mondo Dimitriades is divorcing her Greek husband and her sight has become so affected that she seeks treatment from Reading’s only specialist in Idiopathic Central Serous Chorioretinopathy, Dr. Hull.
Things keep changing where they are. For example, I have a chair in my living room, it’s out in the middle of the room. And next to that, a coffee table with a vase of branches, and behind that a sofa. Well, all of this, the whole room, could have been some kind of wallpaper. It was all completely flat. Like when I walked into the room all the furniture jumped into the wall. It was an empty room with very detailed wallpaper.
—from Vision Disturbance
Falvey (Rail): Is it a real thing, Mondo’s Idiopathic Central Serious Condition? She can only see two dimensions.
Christina Masciotti: It is. When I was writing this, I had an eye operation on my eyelid, just superficial, but I had to wear a patch. I remember coming into the living room here and everything looked like it was receding. As you come closer to things, they seem to pull away. If you close one eye, you can get a little sense of how discombobulating that is. You can’t get close to anything because your depth perception is skewed. I centered this story around this woman’s vision because it had so much to give as a metaphor, that what she’s seeing is parallel to what she’s feeling as her life breaks apart. There are all those clichés about the world looking different when you’re falling in love, but for Mondo seeing in two dimensions is like looking at a flat picture outside of her. She’s not part of the picture, she’s cut off from everything. With only two dimensions, she can’t trust that she can accurately judge where things and people are, what distance they’re at from her.
Rail: She can’t picture herself in this flattened world around her, where her husband has left her for another woman and he’s trying to soak her financially, for $8,000.
Masciotti: Everything has fallen apart for her. She says she knew he was a junk collector from the beginning and she should have known. She’s Greek, and it’s not just that she’s a foreigner who doesn’t speak perfect English, but she doesn’t have anyone to look to for support. She also comes from a culture where the number one thing is marriage and having kids. She didn’t buy into that, but she did marry and try. So when her marriage fails it has a big impact. Mondo really has no one to talk to, so she talks to the audience. She’s imagining someone she could talk with; it’s this hope that eventually you’ll know someone you can tell this to, so you want to get it right.
Have you been under a lot of stress lately?
Can you describe your lifestyle?
Whatever it is, I love it.
Rail: If I were in Mondo’s situation I’d talk to myself, too. Just to offset the other versions—the lawyer’s, her husband’s—of her life. Dr. Hull’s prescription to go to the symphony doesn’t seem so crazy; at least he can see that she’s not enthusiastic about being the subject of yet another expert assessment. I thought of Stanley, from your play Adult, saying “You know how many things I wish I never heard? I’m 50 years old, I deserve to hear things that make some sense.” His daughter, his ex-wife, the login program on his computer—they’re all lecturing him.
I don’t mean to, collapse all your plays into a single story, but Mondo, Stanley, Anna in The Collection—they have in common that they’re middle-aged, they’re not careerists or even well-off. And they’re going through the kind of crisis you can’t have when you’re young; you have to have lived long enough to make the kind of mistake you can’t undo. You’re gonna live with regret or even mistrusting yourself. I haven’t often come across stories like yours. There’s Rabbit, I guess, having sex with someone much younger than himself; and there’s that Eat, Pray, Love story where you narrativize personal suffering to turn it into a positive transformation—like you were only a larvae all along, but now it’s all broad horizons and flourishing. I don’t think you’re trying to critique that stuff, but I’m always struck that your stories don’t engage with those conventions. I don’t know if you think about any of that when you’re writing, though.
Masciotti: I like that characterization! I’m definitely not thinking about—well, what’s interesting is approaching the stories in ways I haven’t seen before. All of my stories start from real people. I focus on real people’s experiences, and that’s different from falling into your favorite stories about what something’s like or what it means. Not that I think of Mondo as a female character, but I don’t see a lot of characters like her. There was A Doll’s House and the archetypes of women’s roles and breaking away from them. I wanted Mondo to come across as someone who was feisty, really funny, who has an answer for everything, isn’t self conscious—how I see women in my family, my mom’s side of my family, respond to things. Mondo is someone who really thinks, not someone who’s written a certain way. She’s not just a function in the story.
Rail: Like she says, “I am reality. Period.” She’s quick and direct, almost intimidatingly so. When she answers Dr. Hull, she’s thinking as she’s speaking—she’ll answer his questions and then pause and give another, real answer. You mentioned earlier that her spoken English isn’t perfect.
What always hooks me into your stories is the spoken language, the idiomatic accuracy of tone and malapropisms and all the mis-speaking of actual speech. I don’t hear that anywhere else. It’s not played for laughs, although it’s often funny. It’s not a distraction, it adds sense. You always know what the character’s getting at, and the irregular way they speak clarifies what they mean. The way you render your characters’ speech sounds so naturalistic it almost shades into surreal. According to Richard Maxwell, your writing is “attuned to the nuances of Americans in a way that is hilarious and meaningful.” All your characters, not only the Greek ones.
It takes time to heal. It’ll take as long as you need it to take.
Need? I don’t—what? To take this long? I don’t need to long take this! Put those words in the right order!
Masciotti: I am interested in the way people talk, and in my writing that manifests in a way that’s not normal. I think that’s where the surreal part comes into it. I’m thinking about how people communicate—what they say, what is not said. I have an innate sense of exactly what words need to be in a line. If there’s one extra word of explanation there I know it’s too much, that it needs to be cut. When I’m watching TV or watching a movie, I’ll be cutting off words as I’m listening. I am really a listener, and so partly this comes from listening to people and wanting to honor them. And it happens that many people I listened to growing up had accents and spoke in unconventional ways. When it comes to the actual line, I know what the character would say though it might take awhile to write exactly how they would be saying it. But I do feel like I have an extra set of eyes saying yes, no, yes, no, and that only happens when I’m writing a play. When I have to write stage directions it’s like, oh God! I’m fumbling around and the sentences feel clumsy. So, in some ways my writing is realistic, but what I believe can constitute a line of dialogue is different from what traditionally constitutes a line of dialogue. Also, there’s an audience and you want them to be able to follow what’s going on. There’s an art to being able to keep it from feeling like exposition.
Rail: I always know what’s going on, but I never noticed how the story is folded into the dialogue. There aren’t seams.
Masciotti: I think about the story arc the same way I think about the dialogue—every play starts with the problem and in the middle the problem gets worse and by the end it’s resolved or not. That kind of an arc happens every day. You go to the bank and the deposit isn’t there and the manager has no record of it and by the end of the day—you know what I mean?
Rail: Sadly, yes.
Masciotti: At the end of the day either they found the money or you’re screwed. There’s an ending. I am very interested in how to resolve the dilemma. Some plays are really traditional, and sometimes I feel stifled by that structure and maybe it can be a little stale. But sometimes, in the name of pushing the form forward, that structure is dispensed with—as if, in order to be experimental we’ve got to break the narrative. That’s not interesting to me because what I think really pushes the form forward is each artist’s point of view about what dialogue is, what an arc is. It’s not just being weird, unless the story gives some reason for it. It’s satisfying to replicate what it’s like to go through a big problem. Mondo has some great problems that are not unusual, but her experience of them isn’t usual—her marriage is falling apart and she doesn’t speak English very well and she can’t see. There are really high stakes there. There are a lot of mundane problems where it feels like your life is really at stake. It’s not about getting a suitcase and going somewhere in the last scene, it’s about finding a way to keep living where you are.