With all the more deserving plays in Athol Fugard’s canon, it’s unclear why Specific Theater Company has made the curious choice to revive “People Are Living There,” an obscure work from 1969 that’s one of only two not to deal with apartheid. Bumping along for 90 minutes, it lacks the emotional intensity and theatrical imagination that mark such Fugard favorites as “Master Harold … and the Boys.”
According to director Suzanne Shepard, who has a long history with the scribe, Fugard allowed her to revise the play without showing him the changes. One wonders if all the good bits got cut, leaving only haphazard sketches of plot and character.
There are signs, though, that the production has goals. For example, the original boarding-house setting has been transplanted from South Africa to New Jersey. Maybe there’s something American in this tale of a miserable woman, Milly (O’ Mara Leary), who enlists her miserable tenants to trick her into being happy. Maybe Milly — with her shrill remorse about the “little girl, full of hope” she used to be — is a metaphor for the country’s soul.
Maybe, but who can tell? The writing bulges with vague arguments. And each topic, be it Nazism or infidelity, comes with a clunky symbol, like the boxing gloves Milly wears while lamenting her fight against despair.
Aside from the histrionics, nothing much happens. Only once, during a joyless birthday party, does the stage tingle with possibility. Everyone crams their faces with food; for a few moments, silence reigns. The gripes about empty lives give way to the simple act of living. But then, lest we think about that too long, Milly starts screaming, “Where’s the fun? … That was the agreement!” She yells in the voice of a writer afraid we won’t get it.
The heavy-handed script is matched by awkward direction. Actors either bolt across the stage for no reason or stand frozen for ages. When not shouting their lines, the overwrought cast gorges on useless pauses that convey nothing but bad timing.
These choices reek of “technique,” as does the design. The entire play unfolds in a kitchen, but Roger Mooney’s set is built at an angle so we can glimpse an unused bedroom bursting with textbooks and Beckett posters. These intrusive props never connect. Like most of the production, they’re a gesture that tries for meaning and ends up a mess.