Denis Johnson and Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Drinking Games

I always learn something new when I see someone drinking. It’s not that Vino leads to the truth in a literal way, but over the course of a long soggy night small and obvious details accumulate that are often more gestural than verbal. How the party goer holds her glass, how often she drinks, what in her world means as a cocktail, all these things get to know her better and where she comes from. Two recent productions — Des Moines, the last play by the late Denise Johnson in 2007, and its Broadway premiere in 2014, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Stephen Adley Gilges The revival of “Between Riverside and Crazy” — a presence that spurs and guides alcohol, otherwise a conduit to fugitive knowledge.

The centerpiece of “Des Moines,” directed by Allyn Arbus of Theater for a New Audience at the Polonski Shakespeare Center, is an impromptu gathering that quickly turns into a drunken bacchanal. Dan (Arliss Howard) and Marta (Johanna Dey) are an aging couple, left to grow older by unspeakable grief and stubborn yet unspoken contradictions about the nature and meaning of their lives. is taking At the beginning of the play, whose main setting is the kitchen, they are talking past each other in a way that reveals their anomies.Taxi driver Dan, who recently lost her husband in a plane crash, is a drunkard. I made contact with his wife (Heather Alicia Sims). Dan’s cab was the last car he rode in. When he tries to tell this story to Marta, she’s more concerned about whether he plans to have a full meal. “So is this new diet some kind of spiritual thing?” she asks. “Because I made spaghetti. Is this a spiritual pilgrimage you’re on, Dan, do you have grain?”

Interesting question, but as the play progresses it seems like a key to something. Here, as elsewhere in Johnson’s work (his collection of short stories, “Jesus’ Son” is the best example), the characters are desperately sad and almost deliberately lead lives that feel left out. But their minds are deep and often pierced with myriad longings. Dan goes to confession and spills the beans on a priest he doesn’t fully respect. Marta, who hates Dan’s cursing, always invites its priest, Father Michael (Michael Shannon, in this case by a coincidence of first names feeling doomed). This pocket of Iowa is full of Polish Catholics. “We are as Polish as sausages and the rest are Polish,” says Father Michael. From the outside, Dan and Marta may seem simple people, but they both reach out to some kind of invisible light.

The simple kitchen shows signs of working class wear. Their most popular cooking utensils seem to be the hissing coffee maker and the microwave where Marta heats up her much-talked-about spaghetti. In a strangely thrilling spectacle gag, the couple stops her talking for a minute and looks at the glowing microwave as the food heats up.

Some of the mysterious mismatches at work in “Des Moines” — between external influences and inner efforts, between surface and soul — are represented by its setting. We never leave Dan and Marta’s apartment, but we get a sense of how they were created and now constrained by the wider environment. I’m surprised how much it’s changed. “I could barely recognize the old district,” he says repeatedly. His speculations about the built environment make him turn inward.

We call it Street now. It used to be a road. I think I can remember when it wasn’t paved yet. I have a very vague image of a dirt road in my head. I would have been very, very young then. …Sometimes the horrors of adolescence are so vivid, so close and so accessible that it seems to me that just a minute before him, I was miraculously rescued from it and come to this point in my life. I feel like I have no desire to be young again.

Martha is very religious, but she did not attend Mass. She doesn’t remember the last time she left the neighborhood. Instead, she watches “Hikikomori no Misa” on TV. As a young man, Dan wanted to travel and joined the military. Instead, he was stationed at Fort Des Moines and stranded back at his first location. “He’s less than seven blocks from the hospital where I was born,” he says. “I used to go to the hospital where I was born there and sometimes eat in the cafeteria.”

These people need catharsis. The whole play feels like an excuse for them to drink together, for better or worse. Father Michael, who likes to wear makeup and go to gay bars at night, has a strong, strange kinship with Dan and Marta’s granddaughter, Jimmy (sly Dionysian Hari he Nef). time on stage). Jimmy recently had a botched gender reassignment surgery that forced her into a wheelchair. “Her tailbone never woke up,” she says. “You must be having a nice dream.” Michael and Jimmy drop off what they call a “depth charger” on her widow, Mrs. Drinkwater.

The play gives way to a loose, dreamy, conceptually continuous, sloppy structure of the night. A few turns of karaoke take place — lengthy renditions that are as intense as microwave moments — beer bottles smashed and grief shared. It is particularly interesting to see Mrs. Drinkwater, the only black person on the show, open her heart and let her guard down. Marta and Dan seem obsessed with Mrs. Drinkwater’s race, Marta says—and seeing the toll that a lifetime under the racial spotlight has taken on her. I can.

Perhaps that’s why one of the show’s great moments is non-verbal: Mrs. Drinkwater removed her jacket to reveal a modest yet form-fitting blue dress. She’s proudly drunk, ready to sing, and she’s on her way to a good time.

Walter Washington (Steven McKinley Henderson, characteristically brilliant) is the flawed hero in Stephen Adley Girgis’s opera Between Riverside and Crazy, thoroughly drunk. He sips whiskey from a china teacup with a slice of pie at breakfast, slipping the bottle’s logic through the rest of the day, coloring it with tangy jokes and harsh words. After dinner, just before the big showdown, he serves his guests coffee with cognac. Everyone around him knows that he is soft-hearted and even very emotional, despite his constant drinking and barbs in his conversations.

Walter, along with his son Junior (Common), Junior’s friend Oswald (Victor Almanzar), and Junior’s skimpy girlfriend Lulu (the fantastical Rosal Colón), live in an old, formerly I live in a luxurious apartment. They all don’t know the law very well, and they call Walter “Dad” or “Dad.” Walter is in the middle of a long-running feud with the New York Police Department, where he worked as a cop, until he is shot by a white police officer. With his ex-partner Detective Audrey O’Connor (Elizabeth Canavan) and her fiancé Lt. Let In a series of tough conversations, Walter paints a portrait of himself as a stubborn, stubborn, almost immobile motherfucker.

Guirgis’ writing and pacing are, as always, hilariously fast and to the point. Austin Pendleton directs his actors with hurried yet precise dance precision. The most reassuring thing about this dizzyingly accomplished character study is its protagonist’s self-awareness: “Do you love yourself? No!” increase. “Do I drink? Of course!” ♦

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