Review: ‘Second-Hand Smoke’

Despite a talent for making words jiggle and jump and conjuring images both bold and bizarre, playwright Mac Wellman serves up an extremely frustrating work in "Second-Hand Smoke." For all his ability to make an audience sit up and pay attention, Wellman does not sustain interest as his soaring dialogue melts into a jumble of syllables with mysteries we don't care to solve. The play unfolds in three connected sections, although there is no plot in any conventional sense. In the first section, called "bats," a government agent comes to the office of a Mr. Glitter (David Greenspan) with questions concerning a waste site for which Glitter is preparing a cleanup plan. Glitter and two colleagues, Mr. Phelan (Matt Servitto) and Harry Custom (Frank Deal), banter with the agent in a conversation that could easily drive crazy the attendees of Lewis Carroll's tea party. After the three men finally manage to drive the female agent away, they drop their pants, don fezzes and begin a dance of wild undulation.

The second scene, “rats,” takes place on the peaked roof of Mr. Phelan’s house, located near the waste site mentioned in the first section, where sisters Susan and Linda play word games while scanning the horizon for something coming their way. The final scene, “cats,” occurs on a barren white plain some distance from the Phelan house, though close enough for the girls on the roof to have seen the two travelers in this scene, a man in a wheelchair and his female companion.

Director Richard Caliban and designers Kyle Chepulis (sets), Anita Yavich (costumes) and Brian Aldous (lights) have taken advantage of Wellman’s imaginative situations to let their own creative juices flow. (All have collaborated with Wellman on previous shows.) The visual aspects of the play, including the occasionally wild gyrations of the performers and the glowing sets and costumes, are arresting even as the words begin to lose steam. Mike Nolan’s original music and sound design have a strong appeal.

The fine cast is unflagging in its ability to imbue Wellman’s sentences with a semblance of actual meaning. Greenspan deserves special notice for his oddly affecting portrayal of Mr. Glitter. Kristin Di Spaltro and Vera Farmiga are delightful as the roof-sitting sisters, and David Patrick Kelly and Joanna P. Adler are noteworthy as the weary wanderers who must sustain the evening’s final scene.

Second-Hand Smoke

Opened Jan. 16, 1997, at Primary Stages. Reviewed Jan. 11; 99 seats; $35 top.


NEW YORK A Primary Stages Company and Theodore C. Rogers presentation of a play in one act by Mac Wellman. Directed by Richard Caliban. Sets, Kyle Chepulis,


Costumes, Anita Yavich; lighting, Brian Aldous; original music and sound design, Mike Nolan; production stage manager, Christine Catti. Artistic director, Casey Childs. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.


Cast: David Greenspan (Mr. Glitter/Mom), Matt Servitto (Mr. Phelan), Frank Deal (Harry Custom), Kristine Nielsen (Sylvia), Joanna P. Adler (Susannah/Dewey), Kristin Di Spaltro (Susan), Vera Farmiga (Linda), David Patrick Kelly (William Hard).
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