Theatre and playwriting these days are often accused of being too television—the scenes too choppy, the acting too mumblingly naturalistic. But watching Poison at the Orange Tree Theatre, written by Lot Vekemans and translated by Rina Vergano, it seemed to me this is not actually the best description of the style of stage acting that I keep encountering. No, it’s a much more artificial kind of naturalism, a blending of acting and writing style that manifests itself in short, declarative sentences (usually formatted on the page with no punctuation and lots of line breaks) delivered with more weight and clarity than any real person gives to each of their words. It’s naturalism, but not at all natural.
In Poison, as in many such plays, said naturalism becomes an excuse for talking around the play’s plot for a very long time. Because real people, of course, don’t tend to tell each other things they both already know. So the conversation wends its way along with apparent aimlessness. Annie Baker is the master of this—but in Baker’s plays, the journey is the destination. There’s not usually a secret lurking at the play’s core. When, as in Poison, there is information being endlessly talked around, it just starts to feel like obfuscation. I found myself longing for some artifice to just give us the facts and set the stage: read that letter aloud! I thought. Let someone get an informative phone call!
Of course, all the marketing materials give away the primary fact the nameless man and woman (Claire Price and Zubin Varla) waiting in a nondescript room at a cemetery are talking around: they lost a child. Their son died ten years ago, and the loss split them apart. She is still drowning in her grief; he is more logical, wears his grief more studiously rationally, and has moved on to a new life. As grieving parent set-ups go, this may be sounding a bit familiar.
That’s not to be dismissive of such a rich topic. If there weren’t still more to say about grief, about loss, then we’d probably just have to stop making art. But as Vekeman’s characters resolutely avoid talking about the exact topics both they and we most want to hear about, they swing into untethered philosophical digressions that are revelatory in neither their language nor their insights. Both characters, especially Price’s, have been hollowed out by their loss. This is part of the point. But it also leaves very little for an audience to latch onto (and very little for director Paul Miller to do with the static, constrained scenes). Who are they, really, besides musings about grief and slightly trite anecdotes? The uniqueness of every individual experience of grief is what makes it so endlessly artistically fruitful. But without individuals to underpin the philosophy, most of Poison skims just above real feeling.
Finally, of course, the couple spit it out: the circumstances of their son’s death, of the father’s departure. And armed at last with actual specificity, the conversation approaches something moving, the meditations grounded and thus more impactful. But by that point, the eighty-minute play is more or less done, and there’s no time left to dwell in it.
Thus the structure mirrors the dialogue: a gesture towards naturalism encased in glossy artificiality. But art needs a bit of artifice to be really revelatory. Realistically speaking, the distance I felt from Vekeman’s characters is pretty accurate: you can’t really get to know two people by eavesdropping on an eighty-minute conversation— even a difficult, intimate one. But that’s why we go watch a play instead.
Poison is on at the Orange Tree Theatre until December 2nd, 2017. Book tickets here.