Christine Lahti in ‘Fucking A.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)
By Samuel L. Leiter
When Fucking A, by MacArthur Fellow Suzan-Lori Parks, one of America’s most interesting and provocative dramatists, premiered in Houston in 2000, it was an early marcher in the parade of mainstream plays using “fuck” or something similar in their titles. Seventeen years later, and fourteen after its New York bow at the Public, the title—spoken by a mellifluous female voice over the lobby’s P.A. system—is still spelled with asterisks on the program of this inadequate revival at the Pershing Square Signature Center.
Fucking A and In the Blood, two Parks plays inspired by Nathanial Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, are being shown under the rubric The Red Letter Plays, the first time the Signature has offered simultaneous productions by the same author. Both are focused on a woman named Hester although their relation to Hawthorne’s tragic heroine, Hester Prynne, is decidedly indirect. Fucking A’s Hester (Christine Lahti) is not an adulteress in a 17th-century Puritan town, for example; she’s a contemporary abortionist, which accounts for the scarlet letter branded on her chest, visible through an open space on her grungy dress.
In Fucking A, Parks tells Hester’s fable-like tale in the manner of a Brechtian parable play; Jacobean neck-slitting violence cohabits with Brecht-like musical interpolations (lyrics and music by Parks), direct address, and a variety of other nonrealistic techniques, including a manufactured language called Talk (like shared Dothraki in “Game of Thrones,” subtitles and all) used mainly by women for discussing sex.
As in a John Doyle production, most actors also play instruments; aside from a moment or two, however, the score is as dully ersatz as the writing and contributes little to the narrative or thematic continuity.
Barely any of the show works and, while the play and production, energetically directed by Jo Bonney, have their fervent admirers, I found Fucking A’s two hours and fifteen minutes hard to sit through: pretension, illogicality, artificiality, exaggeration, and banality will do that to you. Parks’s language in plays like the memorable Top Dog/Underdog can be exceptional; here the goal of creating a “this is theatre, not life” atmosphere succeeds only in underlining the dialogue’s affectation. A feminist subtext is ticking beneath the surface but the play’s embellishments prevent it from exploding.
Parks sets the play in an anonymous, dingy, peasant-like town (the stained-wall set is by Rachel Hauck and lit by Jeff Croiter) where most of the stereotypical characters’ names are their professions. The town’s leaders are the cruel, power-hungry Mayor (Mark Kudisch, reveling in his villainous shtick)—Hester’s friend, the whore called Canary Mary (Joaquina Kalukango), is his “exclusive rights” mistress—and his wealthy wife, the First Lady (Elizabeth Stanley), whom he nastily reviles for her inability to bear him a child. She, for her part, is responsible for having snitched on Hester’s bastard son, Boy Smith, for a minor theft when he was barely ten; this sent him to prison, away from his doting mother, who’s hungered for vengeance ever since.
Hester’s become an abortionist to earn money so she can get Boy released. Parks emphasizes the theme of fanatical mother love by making Hester so devoted to his memory that she awaits the chance to confirm his identity by the matching bite scars she inflicted on both of them when he was a clink-bound kid.
This raises a casting question for literal-minded people like me. Unlike much of Parks’s writing, Fucking A, although interracially cast, isn’t preoccupied with racial issues. Still, the son of the white Hester is portrayed by an actor of color; he could, of course, be biracial. Why then, when confronted by the white man posing as her son, does Hester show no surprise, needing only to see his scar to confirm his identity? Colorblind casting is commendable; in this case, it’s a distraction.
The clumsy plot includes three sadistic, overacting Hunters (J. Cameron Barnett, Ben Horner, and Ruibo Qian), who track down and mutilate escaped convicts; Hester’s real son, the escaped convict referred to as Monster (Brandon Victor Dixon); and Hester’s suitor, Butcher (Raphael Nash Thompson), whose bloody apron matches hers.
Butcher delivers the show’s big set piece, an endless, and I mean endless, string of the crimes, large and small, serious and comic (some getting the play’s biggest laughs), his daughter committed, casually rattling them off, with new ones added whenever they seem to have run their course. It’s nicely delivered by the avuncular Thompson but, once its point is made, it continues way beyond the point of no return.
A big regret is that Christine Lahti, unattractively bewigged, made up, and costumed (by Emilio Sosa) in Mother Courage-like basic drab, retains an aura of speech and sophistication that suggests she’s playacting rather than fitting seamlessly into Hester’s more life-battered skin. Without a Hester to believe in, there’s no way one can grasp just what Parks wants to say about class, gender, sex, and motherhood, much less believe she’s said it in Fucking A.
The Red Letter Plays: Fucking A
Pershing Square Signature Center/Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre
480 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through October 8
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).