Last night I had a great night … just kicked back with some old friends, drank a lot, reminisced, sang some songs, then passed out. Oh, wait, that wasn’t me … that was the cast of Mike Leigh’s Ecstasy.
For the next few weeks, until January 25th, 2009, you can catch this fantastic play at the Red Room, 85 East 4th Street which is being presented by the Black Door Theatre Company in association with Horse Trade Theater Group.
Ecstasy begins with a visual metaphor that’s impossible to miss in this tiny tiny theater; Jean (Mary Monahan) is naked in bed with her lover Roy (Josh Marcantel) and she’s more than just enticingly naked, even as she starts to dress she becomes emotionally naked, and uncomfortably so. With very few words, and just some subtle, longing glances, (which are responded to with casual, thoughtless gestures) we know who Jean is. We know where she’s been. We know what just happened … and we know that it will keep happening.
When Ecstasy starts rolling, it’s a bit like picking up a copy of A Clockwork Orange. For those who aren’t familiar, the book by Anthony Burgess is almost written in another language, though the words are familiar enough, and you struggle through the first few chapters, constantly flipping to the glossary in the back, eager to translate the goings on here because you can just tell the story is worth the work. And so, watching Dawn (Gina LeMoine) chatting away with her old pal Jean is a bit the same … their accents are so beyond thick as to be almost in code, and their relationship is so longstanding and comfortable that they don’t have to really give much by way of setup … they just dive right it, and so you must too. There are words in there that you can understand, but the conversations do run on in a bit of a blur. And unlike A Clockwork Orange, there is no glossary here … well, not a real one. So instead you’re left to just sit back and watch, letting the unspoken tell you what you can’t hear in the words. Don’t be put off, however … the first bits of conversation are disposable enough, it’s the tone that matters. And by the time the words do matter, you’re understanding these old friends as if you were one of them yourself.
In fact, you ARE one of them … this camaraderie is really the key to the piece; Ecstasy doesn’t so much tell a story as present a reality. Most of the chat is simple, about simple things … there’s not so much a plot as there is a life here. And it’s Jean’s life that we’re being shown through the peephole … Jean we see when she’s alone, in her messy, tiny, crooked little room. Jean we see when she’s finding small pebbles of joy with people who have been with her for years: Dawn and her husband, Mick (Brandon McCluskey) and their old friend Len (Stephen Heskett). It’s Jean we see drinking alone. Jean who can’t afford a nicer place. Jean who still works in the same job that was seemingly fun at 17 and is now just isolating and sad. Jean’s friends are a bit better off, though they’ve got their own brand of sadness and seem to find drinking themselves into oblivion an honest way to get through a working class 1979 life. They’re cheerful but their cheer is often manufactured. Still you have to admire their will to seek out a bit of cheer at all.
For a long stretch of Ecstasy there is a sense of being the fifth character of the play … the one who, perhaps, after the hard night of drinking, has come back to Jean’s room to listen through the haze of alcohol as old friends reminisce, tell stories of the good old days, laugh themselves silly about their youthful indiscretions, taking turns to sing a few dirty ditties, chiming in loudly on the bits you remember, and all the while filling up the glasses while there’s still booze to go around. We’ve all been at parties like that, where we’ve sat back and watched with that comfortable feeling of inclusion, no need to speak, but just happy to watch our good friends playing out the script of a night of drinking.
Inevitably the night unfolds past the raucous frivolity on into the dazed looks, the sullen glances, the sleepy nods, the perceived insults, the misunderstandings, the awkward silences … the decision to go home.
I don’t want to leave you thinking there isn’t a point to all of this. There is. And the final few moments of this play make an unexpected impact that stayed with me long after I left the theater. But it’s Jean’s story to tell … and I’d much rather have her tell it.
Ecstasy runs through January 25th Thursday through Saturday at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm at The Red Room (85 E. 4th Street, 3rd Floor). The play runs 1 hour 45 minutes with no intermission. Tickets are $18.00. Click Here for more information.