A Short History of Now
October 13 – 23, 2022
Last Thursday, despite the squalling rain, I attended the opening night of Walter Corwin’s A Short History of Now at Theater for The New City on First Avenue. In a cultural moment when disengaging is tempting (to put it mildly) a thing like rain can become a mitigating factor, but the space and the show itself seem to address that strong desire to disassociate. They remind me how much is going on, and how none of it is to be missed.
A print-program holdout with a mission statement pointed towards “nurturing” and “nourishing” today’s experimental theater artists, Theater for the New City takes pride in bridging the gap between art and communities, creating accessibility and intimacy amidst one of the most gatekept art forms.
A Short History of Now, directed by Forrest Gillespie with incidental music by Bobbie Johnston, sits at the apex of accessible and intimate as well. It takes place in a warmly lit, lower-level performance space with a small stage and even smaller house.
Just as the space cultivates coziness (though, perhaps that was in contrast to the rain), the title and starting stage picture—a whiteboard, tables and chairs, a beige rotary phone atop a sculpture stand and under a floodlight—suggests that what follows will be a comfortable, familiar story as well. We know that phone. We know the sound and smell of drawing a map with dry-erase markers. We know what A Short History of Now means.
We do, and we don’t. A Short History of Now is a highly abstract piece, sharing fragments of far-too-familiar stories, but taking care to leave its riddles unanswered. Four acts in eighty minutes, it borrows the same two actors and five set pieces to lead us from parent teacher conferences to revolutionary war reenactments, to courtrooms, to tenant meetings, to pharmacies.
Each tableau proposes some kind of American Dream. Both mundane and absurd, they teeter at the saturation point where earnest aspirations to work hard and to matter spill out into the mess of late-stage capitalism and the cruelty of anti-human conservative policy.
Kasey O’Brien and John Christopher Morton activate a cult-of-domesticity motif across stylized conversations between married couples, engaging with the sparse yet descriptive set. With the single rotary phone that no one quite uses, the unpacking of groceries and the arranging of flowers, we remain in gothic suburbia, tidily arranged and just barely unhinged. Everything revolves around the kitchen table. The TV blairs in the next room. It briefly recalls Sarah Ruhl's Passion Play, as the players rebuild sets with the same pieces and rebuild dialogue with the same phrases.
The play is also an American Gothic as it’s a double portrait. O’Brien and Morton weave in and out of one another as they shift in volume, delivery, and role. One is always more reasonable. They are always diametrically opposed, as teacher/parent, as husband/wife, as agent of chaos and order.
The first husband and wife pairing is a gender swap, but one that digs deeper than simple drag. O’Brien, as the husband, wears a conspicuously felt costume mustache, a fedora (indoors), and a long chunky cardigan that could be a smoking jacket or anyone’s cottagecore autumn staple. Her hair is tied swiftly back into a visible bun. When Morton enters as the wife, he appears as himself and in the same soft-spoken voice he used moments before to play a male teacher. A flowy oversized cobalt top and thick leggings create an androgenous “yoga parent” look. He wears no makeup, no wig. In this way, the look both pokes fun at and defies the trope of “man vs. woman.”
A two-person allegorical story always takes me back to Genesis, perhaps fittingly with A Short History of Now’s Americana. If O’Brien and Morton are Adam and Eve, their story continues with their two sons, curious shadows of young men that surface as the play moves from act to act as well. A son is sometimes alluded to, his discipline and virtue are questioned but ultimately he is a righteous boy.
Eventually a third actor, Cole Ortiz-Mackes, arrives, further embodying “goodness,” as the “good pharmacist” giving the “smart people” their Covid tests. Both are Abel. Cain appears in the form of the show’s sound design; in act one, he is the screeching saw of a violin played by a child offstage, next he is the blare of the beige rotary phone, unrelenting bells, and finally, a pair of bongo drums. Director Forrest Gillespie executes the sound in a downstage patch of darkness, a “wilderness” just barely contained by the show. If the Garden of Eden is a center stage kitchen table, if East of Eden is a pocket of mischievous noise downstage right, where does that position us?
Perhaps we are reading the bible, and perhaps we should take the text with a pinch of salt. By our own American gospel, we are frightened: by the portrait of Brett Kavanaugh, by the Revolutionary War celebration of colonialism, by the distant notion of visiting Florida. It’s our table that A Short History of Now has set. And we may be ready to dig in, or we may—like one version of Morton’s husband figure, dressed in a leash, dog collar, and baby’s bib and bonnet—feel toothless and unable to stomach the truth.