For writing a play in which the phrase, “I want to work with you at Wal-Mart,” becomes one of the most sickly tender cries of redemption I’ve ever seen on the stage, for that alone, David Brundige ought to be commended. But there’s so much more. “Pig Tails,” David Brundige’s “small pond thing” at the Berlind Theater, is one motherfucker of a small pond thing. “Pig Tails” was written and directed by David Brundige as his Senior Thesis Production. Like the copy of Lord of the Flies that serves as prop and instruction manual for Gabe (John Doherty ‘06), one of the play’s central figures, “Pig Tails” is a play about an island of young people in conflict, stranded and scarred in small-town Jersey, whose raw emotions are all there, unmuted by either the skin of childhood or maturity. And like flies, their buzzing is both aimless and intense. The play operates largely as the resolution of such tense dissonances: it’s set during the brink of winter, but is in part about thaw and new shoots. Players switch roles and switch again, victims becoming villains and vice-versa. Lines like “I’m not a pedophile, I’m just sentimental about childhood,” echo over and over in the audience’s minds, becoming hilarious, sickening, heart-rendingly true in turn. Eventually in this cathartic work, binaries break down and we’re left, blown away in our seats, with a sad, accepting love for human complexity.
The plot of “Pig Tails” is relatively simple: Trap (Charlie Hewson ‘04) is a former teenage hot shot whose big dreams have sputtered out in the absence of his surrogate father and best friend, Steve. When Trap’s cousin Barney (Ben Mains ‘06) comes to town and Trap tries to “play Steve” to him, Wal-Mart employee and Trap’s childhood second-fiddle Gabe- still resentful that Steve chose Trap to be his protégé instead of him- cooks up a scheme to crush Trap for good by getting Barney to fuck his nymphomaniac younger sister, Philipa (Barbara Luse‘04). Lucy (Kimberely Seeherman ‘06), Trap’s ex-girlfriend, is also swimming around in the mix. This skeletal plot outline, introduced early in the play, is filled with obscured significance and motivation. Who was Steve? Where is he now? Why would fucking Philipa be such a big deal? The plot acts as a dark bore into the pasts and personalities of the characters, the play as a depth charge tunneling deeper, revealing little glimpses of flesh until it explodes in bursts of viscera.
In this play that is written to live or die by its characters, the acting is excellent. Sitting through “Pig Tails” is watching layers of scar tissue sloughed off of the actors until they’re left with fragile pig-pink skin. Accordingly, one of the greatest attributes the actors bring to their characters is a (sometimes deceptive) sense of transparency. Charlie Hewson as Trap acts the confident asshole with a sort of physical reserve that lets one know that this asshole is part puppy, and acts the mentor in a way that lets one know that this father is part needy child. Barbara Luse’s nympho Philipa struts across the stage at the opening of the play like something out of a Fellini childhood memory- oozing overripe sex, mature. But off the schoolyard prowl, her overinfantilized demeanor is clearly a played (but also, painfully lived) role- a hurt kitten whose childhood has been torn away. When Doherty’s sometimes goofy puppetmaster Gabe seems a little too cosmopolitan, too Blofeld, for his small town circumstances, its acceptable because we see that Gabe is maybe the yearny town brainiac (it’s more complicated than that!) who tries to live in as much outside culture as the confines of his removed town will allow. The actors, in short, do a great job of conveying the way in which real people shift between the different broken and incomplete renditions of themselves, in which the inescapable difference between acting something and being something- a brother, a friend, a success- is shoved in your face every day, and the way in which interacting with someone else could be just another way of jerking off- you know you’re sitting in a masterpiece of the goddam theater when volumes are spoken on stage simply by the body language of the actors as they compete, in various scenes, to be the “Wank Brother” to Ben Mains. Ben Mains rocked, by the way, as a more-explicit Kevin Arnold. Whether he was gushing admiration as Charlie Hewson masturbated an imaginary colossal dick, or pretended to masturbate a real dick, or scored with sweetie-pie dollface Kim Seeherman, or felt out his strengths as his own man, he was always a right-on authentic coming-of-age lad. Whether he scored or stalled out, the audience was right alongside him. Attaboy!
“Pig Tails” definitely has a set- it’s almost, but not quite, a dysfunctional 21st century Grover’s Corners overrun by the Lost Boys. But the set is both there and not there in interesting ways, or maybe I haven’t seen enough plays. The set exists in nostalgic space, the recollection of a town. The characters walk around on a three-part raised platform with a big, forward-vaulted central panel on which is painted a plane’s-eye view of pathwork farm country. A row of large sideways-leaning telephone poles grows out of the platform and floats, receding, into the background. Little model houses, storefronts, warehouses, a Wal-Mart, hang in midair in semicircle around the set. Behind it all are three large photographic panels with the same image on each- a nearly leafless tree atop a hill, backed by a crooked metal fence, all in fading winter light. The cut-up, multiple-scale, tilted set mimics the strange snapshots of memory- for the characters struggling on display like their ant farm analogs, the town is made of memories. Trap brags that he ran around the perimeter of the town twelve times when he was fourteen. The town’s dimensions, 12×14, are measured in memory’s register. Without that, the quixotic windmills of Trap’s sweet imagination would be no different than the flimsy plastic windmill of the classic American ant farm. None of the actual settings in the play are ever materially there, save the odd magazine stand or telephone. Brundige keeps the focus on the characters- they make the woods, the schoolyard, the neighborhoods- they fashion them so well that transgressing a property boundary, that of Gabe and Phillipa’s yard, occassions one of the most charged and heartwrenching monologues of the play by John Doherty’s Gabe.
“Pig Tails” is an incredibly rich play on so many levels. The script is tremendous, the acting is powerful, real, and always appropriate. There’s a cool Motown soundtrack (maybe a little I’m the new hot-shot on the scene self-proclaiming a la Mean Streets on Brundige’s part). This play is, as they say, “for serious”. If this play is revived during some more renowned period of Brundige’s playwriting career, Princeton will have preceptors grading final essays of ten pages or more about all the wonderfully constructed textual richness and beauty of “Pig Tails.” This is a play my friends and I have been talking about since we left the theater. Hopefully this review will come out in time for its readers to rush and see the play or bug Brundige for a videotape or something.
If this review is lacking in places, it’s because I don’t want it to be a spoiler. It’s a recommendation. Go see “Pig Tails.” How does the pig fit in? It’s an actual pig in the play. And it’s a metaphor.