City of Conversation and Cuddles essay blood and politics. 

Cuddles: a modern fairy tale

Cuddles: a modern fairy tale

The City of Conversation — currently running at Theatre Memphis — is a sharply written slice of political drama nested in a family crisis. It's essentially the story of liberalism at the end of the 20th century as Reaganite barbarians stormed the New Deal's crumbling gates. The tale — told from the perspective of a politically split Georgetown family — wants to map polarization and the end of civility in American discourse, but it becomes an exercise in scapegoating and misplaced congratulations.

As usual Jack Yates' sets dazzle. Amie Eoff's period costumes pop under the lights. There's one extraordinary performance and a few good ones too. But the cast is unbalanced in ability, and when the play staggers, biases become evident, as does an unmistakable streak of weird woman-blaming.

The unwritten "Georgetown rule" once held that, no matter how bitterly Beltway rivals fought at work, evenings were for collegiality, cigars, and dick jokes told over highballs at soirees like the ones hosted by Hester Ferris — crisply played by Karen Mason Riss. She's the tireless influencer for Democrats we meet at the top of the play, as she works on Teddy Kennedy's disastrous primary run against sitting president Jimmy Carter — a bitter affair opening the door for a Reagan presidency. Her plans are upended when her son Colin arrives home a day early from college, with Anna, the ambitious conservative he plans to marry.

Playwright Anthony Giardina romanticizes Georgetown as a kind political Eden, turning Anna — beautifully (and savagely) imagined by Shannon Walton — into an Eve-like temptress offering the apple of Reaganism to any powerful man who'll sit still long enough. Eventually — and inevitably — she squares off against Hester, tearing the family apart. That's where The City of Conversation's metaphors break down, because, whether it's blown up to mythic scale, or considered as a microcosm, it blames this polarization on two stubborn, differently corrosive women. Now that's an off-color joke.

At Theatre Memphis through November 6th

I no longer possess a copy of The Amityville Horror, so don't expect me to quote it directly. But I devoured the paperback when I was 12 and I couldn't get into an R-rated picture. The line that scared me most explained the mundane triggers for demonic haunting. Supernatural horror, it said, might appear and disappear suddenly. It might be caused by something as simple and ordinary as "rearranging the furniture." For some reason that line stuck with me, and it pops into my head whenever good plays with strong directors and gifted casts don't work. I wonder how many haints and horrors might be driven away by better design — or at least by a simple rearranging of the chairs.

Cuddles, running at TheatreWorks, is a different kind of vampire mystery. It unravels slowly, strangely, evoking a grinding sense of dread that grows minute to minute. At its core, it's a modern fairy tale with gothic elements ripped from 19th-century novels where everybody seems to have a mad or embarrassing relative locked in the attic. It's the story of Tabby, a well-off, not-very-nice woman, and Eve, the bloodsucking little sister she cares for. There are men in this story too, and although we never see them, they often feel like the play's realest characters. Their influence erodes a system of rules and rituals the sisters created to protect each other from "the hunger."

Cuddles is clever, but New Moon's cast is struggling. Conversations (one-sided, per the script) turn into droning monologues. But when Tracie Hansom and Hayley Hellums connect, it's horrible, hard to watch, impossible not to, and everything you want from a revisionist nightmare. They're good together, but deeply disadvantaged.

Most of the action is pushed as far upstage as possible and confined to a micro-stage floating in immense darkness. The effect isn't one of claustrophobia but distance. The play's less active moments happen in the big, dark gulf between the audience and a perfectly revolting little attic.

There's a lot to like about this spook story. But somebody needs to rearrange the furniture.

At TheatreWorks through November 6th

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