A Reading Of “The Pill,” A Marla Mase Conceived Family Drama, Thursday, March 9th, 2017, Reviewed
Over and over again, Marla Mase’s “The Pill” returns to Sylvia, her head in a toilet bowl, a toothbrush down her throat, attempting to throw up her daughter’s pill, a mood enhancer like Xanax. Sylvia is breaking down and her teenage daughter Leni, teaches her the most effective way to vomit out the harmless pill that Sylvia has convinced herself will kill her (Leni: “i’ve taken a whole bottle and didn’t get as much as a fucking nosebleed”), Sylvia’s ten year old son Philip is peeking behind a door at the scene, and Philip as an adult narrates the action. Sylvia’s parents are on their way over to the apartment.
This moment in time is a centrifugal force in Philip’s life and it his moment, neither his sister’s nor his mother’s, to which we return. Philip is the normal one of the family whose informal sanity is jeopardized. It is a form of “Rashomon,” the telling of the same story from different point of views., and also of magical realism, of using the skills to make time the size she wants. One day, maybe ten years ago, Marla melted down after taking one of her daughters pills: the moment is seen as a changing point for the son for reasons that will become clear before the evening is over. The performance artist and rocker Mase, asked her family to write their memories of that day, Marla wrote “The Pill,” her son Yanai Feldman wrote “The Pill,” her daughter Lael Feldman (a terrific soul singer in her own write), wrote “When My Mom Took Crazy Pills,” her father Dr. Howard Mase’s “The Purposeful Pill” and Conversations With Grandma completes it. Marla worked on conflating them all in three workshops and Thursday evening, brought a houseful of friends and well wishers for a reading of the in development play.
Yes, a reading, but when you think of a reading, you imagine actors round a table working through it. Thursday was more of an “in concert” performance. The actors had the script but if they hadn’t conned it, they knew it well (five days they worked on it, the director told us), Tomas Doncker, James Dellatacoma and Mark Henry provided sound effects, and the 90 minute plus reading was somewhat closer to a finished deal.
The play feels like it was written to be read and it is hard to imagine how it would work on a stage, the staging on Thursday had a seamless movement, it segued effortlessly between past and present, between that one moment and the present day, so what is necessary on stage, a change of scenery say, is not necessary here. David Ives “Ancient History,” a play about the evening a relationship ended, uses a bell to signify the change of narrator, but it was all in one room. Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia” skipped 200 years by simply putting a laptop on a table, so it can be done. Mase uses the adult Philip to move us through time, place and memory.
But to what end?
“The Pill” builds myth from Familial drama, it changes the preciseness of personal characteristics into the hugeness of god like forms -it is family as idea and not personified by Philip and certainly not by the batty Matriarchal Grandma whose strangeness seems to infect everybody else, but by that ideal of something that is defined by what it is. Especially the greatest creation of the play: Leni. All the acting here is superb, complete brilliance. Sitting so close to the actors, it is a privilege to watch them fall into their roles, no hesitation, no winking, no acting in their acting. At one part Sylvia performs a small excerpt from some of Marla’s performance art, and it is a terrific hall of mirrors, with Marla (and her family) inches away a role I’ve seen Marla perform is performed in a performance Marla has written for another actress. The Grandma plays ditzy with charm and also a form of worry, the Doctor is smooth as silk, and the two Philips roll off each other (the boy is amazing, how much discipline in one so young), one behind the other… but Leni…
Leni is a performance to be remembered. It takes the most tragic member of the family and makes the strange, sad girl a heroine oddly too good for us and not good enough. In one of the most singular things I’ve ever seen (and I saw Glenn Close as Norma Desmond on Broadway yesterday), she goes from being a teenager, to being the three year old having a breakdown on a ride in a fairground, and then stops on a dime and sits down. Leni is in the center of the stage and it is her that is the center of the drama, Philip is the brother watching his sister suck up all the oxygen everywhere she is, he worships her to the place where he emulates what shouldn’t be emulated. The actress performs Leni as a young god, a flawed hero, an Achilles. It is really quite scary, how exciting she makes pure terror.
“The Pill” isn’t perfect because it isn’t finished. I am not certain how it will work on stage (my feeling is they will rid themselves of the adult Phillip once they don’t need him to direct our attention) and I am not certain how they can make the brilliant and seamless moves in time and direction, perception and reality, work on stage. But if they can, “The Pill” will be a major triumph for Mase. She has taken her family and changed them into all of our families while keeping their individuality and with Leni she has given us an entirely new form of hero.