There are indeed Old-Fashioned Prostitutes in Richard Foreman’s new play by the same name, and this is not an irrelevant detail. With their flapper outfits and angelic faces, these “beautiful coquettes,” by everyone’s admission, are the focus of everyone’s attention too. But Foreman has never been a particularly enthusiastic proponent of narrative signposts. The 76-year old playwright/director proposes instead a self-styled “total theater,” which incorporates visual and performance art, philosophy, and psychoanalysis to challenge perception and understanding. So when he seems to hand over the goods in the opening minutes of his latest work, it’s a reasonable guess that greater mysteries await.
These may be unlocked by Samuel, in a black pom-pom beret with a book around his neck, or by a rather deflated Michelin Man, or by the equally enigmatic Alfonso. Then again, maybe not. With Foreman, the key is to experience only and to resist wringing a tale from his particular language of symbols, of which this beguiling show has many.
Amongst the curiosities on view, for example, there is the cluttered stage: a fussy black boudoir of velvet pillows, classical portraits and gilt candelabras – fitting enough, at first glance, for the prostitutes Suzie and Gabriella. However, their fin de siècle whorehouse also features a wall of random block letters, which slides open to reveal hidden recesses and exits, while more alphabetic riddles hang over the set in cryptic pairs: OP EN AL LN HT. The stage is also raised, rather like a boxing ring, the characters leaning and lunging against different parts of its apparatus. There are also the many random events of any Foreman mise en scène, from sudden noises and blinding flashes of light to a voice that announces non-sequiturs like “No world,” “Not yet,” or, more amusingly, “Play over.”
Not for nothing is Foreman hailed as the “Godfather of the American avant-garde” by The New York Times. The author of more than 50 plays and operas, he has been a pivotal figure of downtown theater for almost as many years, his Ontological-Hysteric Theater working out its baffling forms through longstanding residencies at the Public Theater and St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery. Proof that there is a method to his madness, however, he has earned almost every arts award and grant there is: Guggenheim, Rockefeller, Ford, NEA, MacArthur, PEN, and a slew of Obies.
Compared to much of his frenetic body of work, Old-Fashioned Prostitutes feels like a parlor drama. Described as an “expressionistic chamber play,” it respects at least the confined space and small cast of that genre. Yet its restraint and measure are deceptive, an opaque curtain drawn over nagging memory and subconscious longing. These themes do manifest themselves in the staccato dialogue between Samuel (the rock-solid Rocco Sisto) and the elusive Suzie (played with a coy edge by Alenkha Kraigher). And, perilous as it may be to say, a narrative thread seems to emerge, hinting at a search for identity, knowledge, and truth.
To be sure, any meaning comes through in an elliptical and mysterious language. Foreman’s acknowledged influences include the Modernist writer Gertrude Stein, who, like him, slogged away at creating a total art inspired by painting and psychology that was mostly misunderstood in her lifetime. She studied under the psychologist William James, who is credited with the concept of stream of consciousness, a central idea to her experiments in writing, which in turn have shaped Foreman’s, and, could certainly describe the way in which Samuel works through his “private mental dilemmas.” James also was partial to the pragmatic theory of truth, whereby truth exists only to the degree to which the individual who holds that truth deems it to be one, and which does a good job of approximating Samuel’s own grappling with the question throughout the play.
Another Modernist to whom Foreman has turned for inspiration is the poet T. S. Eliot, who used, albeit differently, the theories of consciousness of his day to spawn modern poetry at the close of World War I: less Romantic emotion and more painful psychology. A parallel could even be drawn between Samuel and Eliot’s anti-hero, J. Alfred Prufrock, both protagonists following a search for meaning through menacing urban landscapes while their fractured personas are wracked by incessant questions that only a cunning female can resolve.
Samuel’s quest doesn’t need to elicit any echoes with Modernist experiments to resonate with audiences, however; Foreman’s timing, aesthetic, humor, and writing, above all, stand on their own, and the play, which strikes a minor note of frustration and regret, is easily his most accessible piece yet. Samuel’s story begins with a comical command, unleashed by a homeless man, to “Go to Berkeley. Make film.” But as happens with Foreman, almost every statement is a loaded cannon of competing meanings between the material world on the one hand (Berkeley, CA, in this case) and the world of ideas on the other (the theory of immaterialism expounded by the 18th century philosopher George Berkeley). In Old Fashioned Prostitutes, Foreman encourages us, like Samuel, to “go deeper into the notion of the world as a transparent surface only, snapping the world into apparent being only.” Those coquettes were, in fact, the lovely decoys we suspected.