Fuddy Meers packs more laughs into its two hours than you’re likely to find in any other play this season, and one of the biggest comes when one of its shadier characters tries to take control of the chaos around him by saying, with a perfectly straight face, “Let’s be normal.”
In a Manbites Dog production? Yeah, right. Jeff Storer’s staging of David Lindsay-Abaire’s 1999 New York hit is only the latest Dog show to view “normal” American life as a cross between a surrealist painting and an amusement-park ride. The line stretches from the company’s 1987 debut with 70 Scenes of Halloween to 1999’s Cloud Tectonics, and includes such stops along the way as Christmas on Mars , Dark Ride, 7 Blow Jobs, How I Learned to Drive and Reckless.
Of all these shows, the one that Fuddy Meers most closely resembles is Craig Lucas’ Reckless–the program even uses a quote from that early-’90s production as a motto for the current one. Both plays begin with the heroine lying in bed, and in both, this scene of domestic tranquillity quickly gives way to threats of violence, sudden flight and a cold-water plunge into what Hunter S. Thompson once dubbed “bad craziness.”
In Reckless, however, the heroine is merely complacent and a bit naive at the beginning of her journey; in Fuddy Meers she’s almost literally a blank slate. Claire–as in “clear”–has a form of amnesia that causes her to lose all memory of her identity every time she falls asleep. This probably isn’t a problem you or I will ever have, but as a theatrical device it’s sheer brilliance, since the newly awakened Claire of Scene One is in exactly the same position as the audience. A man appears and says he’s her husband. Is he? A younger man appears, and the two men argue. Apparently, the young man is Claire’s son. Well, imagine that! Viewing a conventional play, we take our sudden intimacy with people we’ve never met for granted. But seen through Claire’s eyes, their actions suddenly seem both totally natural and grotesquely funny, like the behavior of zoo animals or insects in magnified photographs.
Like Alice in Carroll’s Wonderland, Claire is the sane center of a mad world, and Schatzie perfectly embodies her in Jeff Storer’s production. Schatzie (who, like Claire, has only one name) radiates a fresh-scrubbed, can-do cheerfulness in even the most trying circumstances, and you have no trouble believing she’ll come out on top, whether she’s being rescued (or is it kidnapped?) by a man who may or may not be her brother, or trying to communicate with her mother, Gertie, whose speech has been garbled by a stroke. (The play’s title, in case you’re wondering, is what comes out when Gertie tries to say “funhouse mirrors.”)
As is usually the case with Manbites Dog, the supporting cast is topnotch. Jay O’Berski throws himself into the role of Claire’s limping, disfigured, half-blind “brother Zach” with a hambone gusto that hasn’t been seen since Robert Newton quit “arrgh-matey”-ing around as Long John Silver. But there’s a core of desperation there that makes his character needy and threatening as well as funny. Marcia Edmundson’s razor-sharp precision as Gertie neatly emphasizes the gap between the character’s hard-eyed determination and her stroke-impaired diction. And Mike Wiley gets off some of the show’s most hilarious lines as an awkward, painfully shy escaped convict whose alter ego is a wise-ass sock puppet named Hinky Binky.
Compared to that trio, David Ring as Claire’s not-quite-reformed druggie husband, Chris Schuessler as her smoldering teenage son and Lissa Brennan as a belligerent cop come off as models of plausibility, but they still get some of the show’s biggest laughs. In particular, the two men have this father-son “Just Say No” lecture where … but, no, I won’t spoil it for you. After all, this is a show about discovering things for yourself.
Fuddy Meers has its serious moments, though unlike the aforementioned Reckless–which I still consider Manbites Dog’s greatest show ever–the deeper emotions don’t always seem organically related to the zany situations from which they emerge. But Fuddy Meers is so filled with comic inventiveness, and Storer’s production is so polished, that any criticism seems like nit-picking, especially with Schatzie’s note perfect performance in the leading role. Go see it.