What do Tracy Austin and a men’s room attendant have in common? The answer seems obvious at first glance: nothing. But in director Daniel Fish’s A (radically condensed and expanded) Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, developed from the stories and essays of the late David Foster Wallace, the child tennis sensation and the washroom employee are two sides of the same coin.
Nevertheless, it is Austin – who caused a sensation in the early 1980s, as the youngest US Open champion at the age of 16 and the winner of three Grand Slam titles – who stands at center court of Fish’s production. A poster of her in a red gingham tennis outfit, ponytails and braces is taped to the back wall of the Anspacher space of the Public Theater, which has programed the show as part of the Under the Radar series. There, it is relentlessly bombarded by a tennis ball machine, whose ammunition is piled high under her portrait and lines the stage in evenly spaced diagonals. Wallace was a self-described “rabid fan” of the tiny on-court phenomenon, but his essay, “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart,” is a blistering deconstruction of the sports memoir genre and, in particular, of Austin’s cheery vapidness when reflecting on her accomplishments.
More than lending a tennis aesthetic to the set, however, her story serves as a cautionary tale, linking all the stories sampled, although this may not be initially clear from the show’s sequential format. This structure hinges on the talents of the four actors who relay each other to deliver five works in Wallace’s minutely detailed oeuvre. At times their voices layer over and support each other, chorus-like, but each of them is in turn the driving voice of a single work.
To carry these pieces, whose language can take off in great descriptive spirals to describe every sound and smell in a public restroom, or the light of a Tucson sunset falling on a diving pool, or the textures of richly piled carpets and towels on a cruise ship, the actors adopt a range of physical stances that belie intense mental concentration. For the essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” about the self-indulgent excesses of a luxury vacation, actress Jenny Seastone gesticulates exaggeratedly in a slow-motion hip-hop dance. Therese Plaehn does jumping jacks at a steady, uninterrupted pace, gaze fixed straight ahead, while reciting the story of the men’s room employee, her calisthenics hinting at the stamina necessary to stand in place for an eight hour shift. Mary Rasmussen holds herself perfectly still at a standup microphone to tell “Forever Overhead” about a 13-year old boy’s calculated journey to the top of the high dive at a public swimming pool. And then there’s John Amir, who draws spastic forehands and backhands in a deep crouch as he digs ever deeper into Wallace’s essay on Austin. All seem to be listening to an inner voice propelling them to tell their tales.
As it happens, they are doing just that. The actors receive their lines via an audio feed they alone can hear with headphones. Off stage, Fish regulates what they hear and must do, adjusting the tempo of delivery, the order of the pieces and the actor who will deliver them. Such spontaneity requires enormous concentration, and their performances are intensely physical, as they try to keep up with the pace of the audio feed while taking care to articulate each word as precisely as possible. But so skilled are they at this game, the result is a little like Austin’s famously dependable, two-fisted backhand; over and over again, they hit the language deep to the baseline.
Thematically also, the show builds out from Wallace’s intuitive understanding of our American fascination with the star athlete by challenging us, with the other works featured here, to pay the same focused attention to the less sexy heroes who people our daily lives. The washroom attendant is one, and is himself a master of observation, able to read the least desire or impulse in the twitches, grunts and silences of the men who pass by him on their way to relieve themselves. Others are to be found in the crew on board the luxury ship, whose discrete and unfailing service starts to weigh on the narrator, whose privileged position makes him precisely the kind of person whom the washroom attendant must fuss over. Yet another is found in the young narrator of “Forever Overhead” whose zenlike meditation on time, fear, adolescence and belonging deflates the sports metaphors and sports speak of the Austin essay. The coup de grâce comes with Wallace’s “A Radically Condensed History of Post-Industrial Life” which demonstrates in half a dozen sentences the seeming impossibility of meaningful connection with all these “others.”
Wallace said elsewhere that he felt compelled to write “morally passionate, passionately moral fiction” that could help readers “become less alone inside.” The success of this production rests on the quality of that writing but also on Fish’s own understanding of the material which, as performed by this impassioned quartet who hang, literally, on Wallace’s every word, lend the texts a performative dynamic that suits their rolling lyricism and fierce presence of mind. As a muscular homage to Wallace, who committed suicide in 2008, and to the tragicomic human condition that inspired him, A (radically condensed and expanded) Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, at first looks like a wild card but wins the game in straight sets with its own moral reading of an intensely human writer.