The Pool Room -- Carlyle Brown's new play, receiving its premiere at the Freedom Theatre under the playwright's direction as part of an exchange with the Minneapolis Playwrights' Center -- lasts a little over an hour-and-a-half without intermission.
Well, not really -- for the play itself doesn't really get started until after its first half hour. For about 15 minutes, we watch Jazz (Rodney Gilbert) putting his cue together, stroking its length, caressing its tip with chalk, and practicing his pool shots. Then we see J.J. (Kim Sullivan) struggling with a candy machine. Then we listen to Billie Holiday on the jukebox singing "You Don't Know What love Is" -- the whole song. Then Budda, the owner of the pool hall (Mel Donaldson), reads a short story about a pool hustler that he's just scribbled on a legal pad -- the whole story.
When the play finally gets started, we learn that neither Jazz nor J.J. really know what love is. But that doesn't keep them from talking about it incessantly.
J.J. has just left his girlfriend Liz who, we learn, has just found out about J.J.'s other woman. And so the two rack up the balls, chalk up their cues and, while they play a game of eight ball, reminisce about their relationships with women, starting with J.J.'s graphic memory of going down the birth canal ("I was evicted from the womb," he complains), through their memories of their mothers, childhood flirtations, teenage parties, getting blue balls ("Otis [Redding] taught us how to beg"), losing their virginity, beating their girlfriends, and other episodes with the various and sundry chippies, dames, hammers and mommas in their lives.
Throughout, they philosophize about their experiences ("The first thing you learn about sex: somebody's lying"; "Anger, testosterone, and love -- three angry monkeys out on the same limb"). And Budda pops his head in every so often to put in his two cents, including a lengthy disquisition on female bonding being a modern version of village women washing men's laundry together at the rock in the middle of the river.
What makes all this interesting is that while they reminisce, Jazz and J.J. act out their encounters with women, taking on the roles of each other's mothers and girlfriends -- often graphically. When Budda barges in on them just as J.J. has mounted Jazz in order to reenact Jazz's lover's response to his having beaten her, Budda shouts out "What is this crap -- some sort of psychodrama?" Precisely. At least Carlyle Brown has the courage to show not only the homosocial but the homoerotic aspects of male bonding, both when Jazz and J.J. slow dance, and when J.J. describes a mistaken encounter he once had with a drag queen.
But through all their macho swagger, neither Jazz and J.J., nor Gilbert and Sullivan playing them, ever reach the sublimely loathsome gynophobic heights reached by some of the more benighted protagonists of David Mamet or David Rabe. They're both just too nice. J.J. goes home to patch things up with Liz. And Jazz observes, bringing the play around to the inevitable pool metaphor, that once you've sunk the eight ball, "You gotta rack it up again."
And so the conversation, like the whole play, is (to use the play's final metaphor) only so much noise, like pool balls dropping into pockets and clattering down the gutters under the table, only to be racked up all over again for the next game.
-- Cary M. Mazer