Erik (Grant Moninger), after a fight with his parents, is playing hooky from high school and has fled to a sleazy hotel room in Chicago with his altar-boy buddy Milt (Sam Henderson). The panicky Milt flees back to Wisconsin, and Erik finds himself unwittingly mixed up with a pimp named Richard (Rick Stoppleworth) and a prostitute named Teddy (Amanda Schoonover). A few minutes later, Erik is writhing on the floor, mortally wounded, with a knife in his belly.
Snow falls. The scene changes. Now Erik is back with Richard and Teddy (his guardians? his step-parents? his parents?), sleeping on the couch while Teddy and the whiskey-swilling Richard, home from his blue-collar job, are having passionate and noisy sex just offstage in the bedroom.
We're in the world of Cosmologies, David Rabe's latest play, which had previously been seen only in a staged reading at Villanova a few years ago and in a production at a Massachusetts summer theater last year, and which last week received an elaborate staging with a largely student cast (Stoppleworth excepted) at the University of the Arts, under the direction of Paul Berman, director of the School of Theatre Arts there.
This is familiar territory. Ever since Rabe finished up the Vietnam-drama phase of his career, he's mostly been focusing on male anxiety. If the cokehead macho creeps in Hurlyburly teeter close to the edge of paranoia, the characters in Goose and Tomtom and Those the River Keeps plunge headlong over the edge into fantasy, taking the stage world and the audience along for the ride.
And so it goes with Cosmologies. At first, we're not sure whether the hotel room in Chicago is the fantasy projection of Erik's home life (with Dad as pimp and Mom as whore), or whether the domestic scene is the fantasy projection of Erik as he's dying from the knife wound.
But this mystery is soon solved. Once we're back home with the family we're pretty much stuck for the next two-and-a-half hours of the play, and the flights into unreality keep piling up. A fleeing convict (Evan Palazzo), no doubt an alter ego of the guilt-ridden Erik, crawls in through the window, followed soon after by two Kafkaesque police detectives (J. Alex Cordaro and John Gelety). Richard metamorphoses into various incarnations of the brutal, castrating father, walking around with his fly open for most of the play, repeatedly threatening to beat Erik to a pulp, and doing it every half hour or so. And Teddy/Mom metamorphoses back into a whore figure, and in doing so nearly fulfills Erik's wildest Oedipal dreams.
All comic hell breaks loose. A meal turns into an Ionesco play. Pages get ripped out of books. Father and son duel with phallic segments of a mail-order telescope. Endless props and foodstuffs get pulled out of a refrigerator. By the end of the first act, the entire cast sings "I'm forever blowing bubbles," soap bubbles wafting from their wands, as snow once again falls in the living room.
It's hard to tell how much of this is from the playwright and how much is the invention of the director. What is clear is that the playwright takes Erik's spiritual and philosophical plight quite seriously. Erik spends much of the time peering out the windows to the cosmos, seeking to get past the limitations of his own perception to an understanding of the nature of the universe, in search of a "solution to the puzzle" which he can use to map "a cosmology of everything."
Had the playwright directed this production himself (as he has several of his more recent plays), no doubt all this philosophy and cosmic angst would have been deadly serious and deadly dull. But Berman has his actors spout virtually all of the philosophy with their tongues dancing acrobatically in their cheeks. And he has at his disposal Moninger (a young actor to watch), who brings a desperate manic edge to Erik without ever losing the emotional despair behind the craziness; and Stoppleworth, who plays each manifestation of the monster-patriarch with obvious relish, strutting about the stage like a six-foot-something penis on a rampage.
When Rabe's dramatic lunacy begins to flag, Berman is always there to provide some theatrical craziness of his own. This hyperactive direction keeps the play moving, but it also dooms Rabe's play. For when Berman's becomes most inventive, it only serves to remind us of the paucity of Rabe's dramatic imagination.
At the end of the play, Richard-the-pimp's knife is back in Erik's belly, and Erik's life and fantasy world come to a full stop. We're now in the real home of Erik's real parents (again played by Stoppleworth and Schoonover), who receive word from two real detectives (Cordaro and Gelety again) that Erik has been found stabbed to death in a hotel room in Chicago. Dad now realizes that maybe he was wrong to have had a fight with his son over the car keys (or whatever it was). Everything we've been watching, then, is the standard adolescent fantasy: I'm gonna die, and, boy oh boy, won't Mom and Dad be sorry.
And we're left with the gnawing suspicion that the entire play has been David Rabe's adolescent fantasy: if you don't like my plays anymore, boy oh boy, you'll just have to sit through them anyway. After writing some of the best (if most unpleasant) plays of the last few decades, Rabe has progressively become as obsessed as his characters. In Cosmologies, his point of view, his dramaturgy and his imagination have become as adolescent, as whining, as pseudo-philosophical and as juvenile as Erik.
-- Cary M. Mazer