“I felt while I was writing this play that I was getting away with murder.”
So said Maria Irene Fornes on Saturday, Jan. 7, 1978. The esteemed playwright was doing a talkback after a performance of her FEFU AND HER FRIENDS at what is now the Laura Pels Theatre.
As Fornes spoke, many heads were seen bobbing in agreement at her admission of guilt. Although her writing, characterizations and plot had come across as muddled, Fornes had indeed come up with a brilliant coup de theatre that made the show worth attending (and allowed her to beat the rap on that metaphorical murder).
I’ve made two subsequent trips to FEFU – one in Cambridge, MA in 2002 and this current one at Theatre for the New Audience in Brooklyn. I’m still not enamored of the script, and yet if another production is offered in the future, I’ll try again. As the famous expression goes, when you’re driving on a road and see a car accident ahead, you can’t look at it – but you can’t look away. Fornes’ device (or gimmick, if you will) is irresistible.
(Just don’t expect too much from the rest of the show, that’s all.)
Chances are that you already know the play’s ploy thanks to the many critics who have seen this production and have spilled the considerable beans. Nevertheless, just on the off-chance that you haven’t heard the details, they won’t be revealed here.
Let’s put it this way, though. FEFU offers us something you can’t see at your local quad or on your old Quasar. We like when we see a property that must be shown in this one specific medium and could not remotely be duplicated in another. So just as a historical documentary really must be a film experience (with all that footage from yesteryear) and reality shows are right at home on TV, Fornes’ imaginative idea for FEFU is one that can only be truly appreciated in the theater.
And yet, one could effectively argue that the device keeps us from getting engaged with the characters: Fefu (the admirable Amelia Workman) is entertaining six visitors in her handsome home. (Gorgeous wallpaper in the house’s many rooms must have overtaxed set designer Adam Rigg.) Although all are there to rehearse a play for a benefit performance, there’s plenty else going on.
Hence the script’s overly episodic nature; four short scenes that follow seem to end just when they’re getting going. One of them is extraordinarily successful in letting us in on what’s happening from its first moment; two others, not so much.
Another, which is simply a monologue that details an unwanted sex act, is clear, but easy to tune out. Perhaps that’s why director Lileana Blain-Cruz, unlike the previous two who’ve staged the play, has given audience members headphones so that every word said by Julia (a fine Brittany Bradford) can be better understood.
Actually, the headphones are a must, considering where Blain-Cruz has placed the scene. It’s in the most unorthodox space imaginable and so far from the audience that it runs the risk of distancing us emotionally from what’s happening.
The four dramaticules come in between a longish opening scene and a long closing one. Both have seven women sitting around and talking, with Fefu bullying her guests (and with at least four of them either not strong enough or not caring enough to fight back).
Mysteries abound, such as the sudden entrance of a character who is now nothing like the woman she’d been during the entire rest of the play. One can say that she’s Fefu’s hallucination but that doesn’t explain away her ultimate fate a few minutes later (one which, by the way, makes no logical sense).
Remember Chekhov’s demand that if a gun is shown early in a play that it must be put in use by the end? Fornes and Fefu don’t wait very long before a rifle is fired. Were bullets in there or blanks? Add that to the pack of enigmas.
Perhaps Fornes simply wanted her audiences to say “Oooh, wow – isn’t that weird?” with the same enthusiasm they gladly give the even weirder coup de theatre.
So did Fornes get away with murder? If so, it isn’t murder in the first degree or even manslaughter (although some offstage men do take their lumps). But if you do attend, see if what I noticed in 1978, 2002 and 2019 still holds true: the theatergoers had delighted smiles as they witnessed the first of four short scenes – and then had them eventually, inadvertently and incrementally dissipate into straight lines.
They’re the only straight lines to be found in FEFU AND HER FRIENDS.