By Rodrigo Nogueira
Directed by Erin Ortman
Presented by The Tank with support from Torn Page and Group.Br
At The Tank, 312 W 36Th St, New York, NY, January 3-20, 2019
Rebecca Gibel – Dominique
(Sarah Naughton – Understudy for Ms. Gibel)
Gabriela Garcia – Best Friend/Maid
Charlie Pollock – Husband/Father
Keith Reddin – Best Friend’s Husband/Professor
Darwin Del Fabro — Dominic
Ao Li – Set Designer
Kia Rogers – Lighting Designer
Becky Bodurtha – Costume Designer
Quentin Chiappetta – Music Composer And Sound Designer
Gabriella Pérez – Movement
Liz Hayes – Dialect Coach
Monica Vilela – Production Manager
Vanessa Ramon – Production Stage Manager
Josh Walker – Assistant Director
Mitchell Bueno – Assistant Stage Manager
Byunchen Lee – Violin
Ao Peng – Viola
Ana Kim – Cello
Bill Youmans – Casting Assistance
Bradley Bloom – Sound Operator
Rodrigo Nogueira And The Tank – Producers
Tom Page – Associate Producer
Group.Br – Supporter
Rodrigo Nogueira, who is already well-established in his native Brazil as a major playwright, also active in cinema and television, introduced himself to New York audiences last spring with his play, The Ideal Obituary, which I reviewed enthusiastically. Now, just at the beginning of the new year, he is back, with another offbeat and absorbing creation, Real. In The Ideal Obituary Mr. Nogueira explored the stranger workings of the human mind. He showed us how the well-intentioned efforts of a loving husband to cure his wife’s severe depression ironically led the couple to a more functional and seemingly happier situation which eventually passed through the most basic laws of morality up to a life or death decision. The human mind and soul follow their own irrational logic.
Real also unfolds within a marriage—as well as another basic familial relationship, that of son and father—and these connections are undermined by forbidden obsessions—or drives or destinies, if one depersonalizes them—but in Real, the forces act, not within the human spheres of love, disease and health, but within the desires of the creative psyche. In The Ideal Obituary the stakes existed within the taboo expressed in the biblical commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” heightened by the unwritten value, “Thou shalt not kill whom one loves.” But in Real the moral forces issue from the urge—or destiny—of the creative being to exercise his or her gift—or birthright. This plays out within counter-forces related to gender and sexuality, and the social roles created by them—not in a single material place, but in two different spaces, both in New York City, but separated by ninety years. Eventually, as the creative forces work their way, with a kind of inevitability that recalls the old dictum about love, Amor vincit omnia, the spaces coalesce, as well as two people transcending life in death through art. And yes, there is something in this of Aristophanes’ severed halves, as Plato put it into his mouth in his Symposium.
Mr. Nogueira has chosen to construct this Platonic battle in imitation of a fugue, an entirely appropriate approach for a drama which plays out on an ideal plane as well as the physical, and the basic action is nothing other than the creation of a fugue.
Dominique is forty years old, supposedly happily married with a child of five. Like her husband, she is a lawyer. The couple are celebrating an award she has won for her law firm with her somewhat edgy and alcoholic best friend and her somewhat alienated but well-intentioned husband, who is fifteen years older, a high school English teacher, who modestly ekes out a less than modest life in the obscurity of mediocrity. Dominique has prepared a sumptuous dinner for them in their splendid Upper West Side apartment, and they are about to begin dessert, chatting about the kind of trivia implicitly meaningful in parts to their mundane lives. Dominique has a talent for music, which she cultivated during her college years with some recognition. When she met her present husband and they married, he persuaded her to give up art for money, and she entirely stopped practicing, achieving success as a lawyer. Over the course of the first scene her commitment to this life begins to crumble, much to the resentment of her husband, which he expresses angrily, as we learn that she has begun to play the piano again, without a sign of her years of inactivity, inspired by a play she has happened on and read. She is playing a fugue, which she is apparently composing herself. As the play unfolds, Dominique becomes increasingly absorbed, rather, obsessed, with her music, driving her husband into more extreme disapproval and desperation.
In the next scene we go back to 1930 and find Dominic in his dormitory room at a conservatory in New York, where he unburdens himself to the Maid (played by the same actress as the Best Friend), a Mexican émigrée like him, both living under the threat of Mexican Repatriation, a policy of the United States government between 1929 and 1936, in which Mexican residents, identified primarily by their dark skin, were deported en masse to Mexico, whether they were born there or not. His professor (played by the same actor as the Best Friend’s Husband) comes to find out why Dominic has missed his class and his obligation to turn in further work on a fugue he is writing. The professor reminds him that he is a prodigy and that his failure to produce is a profound dereliction. While he is talking, Dominic writes out another section of his composition, deeply astounding the professor.
The exchanges between the present and 1930 quicken and become more urgent. There is a confrontation between Dominic and his American father, who is protecting him in the United States. The Father is played by the same actor as Dominique’s Husband, and he expresses—brutally—the same repressive prejudices as the Husband.
Ars vincit omnia. The fugue is completed, as Dominique, who has desired to be a man from the beginning, and Dominique, who identifies with the female, become one.
Nogueira states the subject of his dramatic fugue, expertly, with Dominique stating her wish to be a man on a dark stage, out of time and space. The lights go up soon enough, to reveal her well-appointed living room, her husband, and their guests. Another instance of his dramatic skill is his ability to make trivial dinner conversation, which crosses the line into prejudice and stupidity more than once, entertaining. The dialogue redeems itself through its pointedness in revealing character and situation. Pacing and proportion are perfect, energetically supported by Erin Ortman’s urgent and colorful direction.
As in The Ideal Obituary, casting is perfect, with highly gifted and skillful actors in double roles, except for Dominique and Dominic. Rebecca Gibel was entirely convincing in that role, in which she is half artist and half attorney/wife. Gabriela Garcia made a festival of her lines as the Best Friend, tacking alertly between her affection for Dominique and bitchy frustration with her childlessness and her husband’s limitations as a provider. Her Maid was brooding and sympathetic. Keith Reddin was entirely convincing and sympathetic as the Best Friend’s Husband and as Dominic’s Professor—both a bit prolix and dotty. Charlie Pollock had an especially tricky course to steer as Dominique’s Husband and Dominic’s Father in that both characters bordered on the villainous, with perhaps a little more room for feeling in the Husband. The Father showed all the worst characteristics of those who believe that fathers should have a bond of obligation with their adult or near-adult sons and that there is something superior about U.S. Americans. Darwin Del Fabro gave a truly astonishing performance as the androgynous young composer. His deeply moving exploration of the character’s tortured femininity and his creative and sexual yearnings is the stuff that launches a great career.
I was moved not only by Dominic but by the entire play. Rodrigo Nogueira’s perception into his characters was deep and unerring, and he showed a lively talent for entertaining the audience through brilliant language. English is a second language for him, but when he couches one of the characters’ thoughts in a phrase which seems surprising for a native English-speaker, it is all for the better, leading him away from clichés and enriching his diction with the bracing parallax of a brilliant writer who has learned English through study. In this he reminds me of the great prose stylist, Joseph Conrad.
Real is a great play, and I mean that literally: it is a masterpiece of the uncanny and of truth, and it deserves a place in the repertoire. This run closes on Sunday, so there is not much time left to see it. Not to be missed!