Alison Fraser in ‘Squeamish.’ (Photo: Maria Baranova via The Broadway Blog.)
By Samuel L. Leiter
An armchair on a small platform, a lamp and a small table with a black coffee mug at one side. In the chair, dimly lit, a blonde in a black dress, her face pretty, her sleeveless arms well-toned, her legs shapely. She’s Sharon, a therapist. It’s the middle of the night in the Upper West Side, high-rise office of Dr. Schneider, her shrink of 15 years; unlike her, he can prescribe meds. Although she hasn’t spoken to him in five months, her desperation has apparently convinced him to hear her out, despite the hour.
Thus begins Aaron Marks’s Squeamish, a darkly creepy one-woman play with overtones of Edgar Allan Poe, in which Sharon, played with chilling naturalness by two-time Tony nominee Alison Fraser, recounts the bizarre and bloody experiences that have driven her to seek the doc’s advice.
Squeamish, the third in a Marksian trilogy of psychological horror plays that includes Empanada Loca and Another Medea, unpacks a weird story of how Sharon, a former victim of drug and alcohol abuse, flees to Lubbock, Texas, to attend the funeral of her beloved nephew, Eddie, who allegedly committed suicide. At the funeral, she meets his seemingly well-balanced girlfriend, Cara. Sharon, herself a seeker after “balance,” finds it when Cara invites her into a cult-like world of people calling themselves Sanguinarians, a world Sharon is surprised to find is very much to her own, ahem, tastes.
To reveal more would be to spoil the fun of listening to this highly caffeinated (I use the word deliberately) tale, which involves drugs, sex, suicide, vomit, flesh-cutting, peppermint (that’s what I said), and flowing streams of lip-smacking blood. Aided by Marks’s direction, Fraser gets deep under Sharon’s skin, into her very veins, you might say, carving with scalpel-like precision a character who seems at first merely high strung but soon sucks you into the reality of her nightmarish experiences.
Throughout the play’s intermissionless 90 minutes, Fraser never once rises from her chair; instead, she merely alters her position, crosses or uncrosses her legs, swigs from the mug, runs her fingers through her hair, and shifts her intensity levels, even managing to get some rather salty laughs. She also switches voices and accents to suggest six characters Sharon encounters although only just enough to differentiate them from Sharon herself; it’s more like what anyone might do in delivering a narrative than a demonstration of chameleon-like transformation.
Despite Squeamish’s pretension to a this-could-actually-have-happened plausibility, you have to suspend your disbelief for much of it, most especially the surprise ending. Fans of such fright nights may guess what’s coming but most will not because, for all its momentary shock (vaguely reminiscent of Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”), it defies the logical sequence of events that preceded it.
Squeamish contains some gory imagery but anyone who’s been watching movie or TV violence in recent years has seen far grislier stuff. It’s the creepy crawlies in Sharon’s psyche that create the goosebumps; Aaron Marks’s words and Alison Fraser’s acting are all the special effects you need to crawl in there with them.
Beckett Theatre/Theatre Row
410 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through November 11
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. A voting member of the Drama Desk, he has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).