Tom Noonan pulls off a considerable literary feat with “Wifey,” a dissection of two marriages in which the playwright and actor pays homage to his obvious influences — a diverse group that includes Edward Albee, Sam Shepard and Franz Xaver Kroetz, for starters — in a work that is by turns infuriating and cryptic, but which is also deeply disturbing and quite original.
Produced in anticipation of a film transfer, this is not a conventional theater experience. The audience, numbering about 70, is seated on banquettes and folding chairs at the periphery of a living room space. Four sectional chairs surround a central table; a platform in one corner of the space supports a tiny bedroom where the action of the play begins, while a kitchen is tucked into another corner. Several small carved, winged female creatures dangle overhead, and farther off are suggestions of a sylvan suburban setting.
At the opening, a woozy post-coital couple rise from bed early on a Sunday evening, she to prepare dinner, he to put on some music. In tones so hushed one strains to hear even in this intimate setting, Rita (Julie Hagerty) and Jack (Noonan) go over the week about to get under way. New Age therapists practicing at home, they discuss upcoming sessions.
But trouble is almost immediately apparent in this elegant cocoon: The conversation unfolds in halting sentences, each response more tentative than the last. When Jack pulls away from a light embrace, Rita wants him to admit he’s putting some distance between them: “Saying that you don’t want to be close is a way of being close.”
Things go downhill with the unexpected arrival of a patient, Cosmo (Wallace Shawn), and his wife, Arlie (Karen Young in the title role), who fit in these surroundings like velvet paintings at the Louvre: Sleek Jack and Rita wear flowing dark silk dressing gowns, while Cosmo’s porcine features are set off by a checkerboard hunting jacket and Arlie sports fake fur over an iridescent minidress and shoes she offhandedly describes as “fuck-me” heels. Although Cosmo is clearly well-bred, Arlie is a former go-go dancer who now occasionally “does hair” and who lands in this crowd, needless to say, like a cherry bomb in a monastery.
Over Rita’s quiet protestations, Jack invites the couple to stay for dinner (bulgur and salad) and proceeds to indulge Arlie’s penchant for both alcohol and vulgar declamation on everything from the uselessness of mall rats to the inherent superiority of Mick Jagger. Cosmo — variously Coco, Momo and Baby — is at first embarrassed, then oddly liberated, confiding to the couple (while Wifey is off going through the drugs in Rita’s dressing table) that finally they can see what he’s been talking about in all those group sessions.
The foursome come together and regroup in different areas of the space, so that we sometimes hear only fragments of conversations. Yet Noonan’s focus never blurs, and it’s mainly on himself — that is to say, Jack, a sadistic monster who uses charm, humor and an unerring gift for disengaging himself from a situation just before it gets emotionally messy, to obliterate Rita as he sets his sights on Arlie.
Rita responds by downing Quaaludes and scotch, nearly committing suicide in the process. After Cosmo declares his intention to break up with Arlie (“I just want everybody to get out of my way,” he announces), Jack, a slug on the prowl, follows her outside.
Jack, Rita, Cosmo and Arlie are all pretty creepy, and in measuring one’s level of discomfiture in their company, one wonders how much owes to the witnessing of such harshness, how much to detail that cuts so close to the bone. Noonan knows a lot about the dark side of marriage — the accommodations, the unsavory pacts, the devastating compromises — that only occasionally gets tested in the cold light (or, in this case, the black light) of confrontation.
Noonan’s voice is distinctly his own. The detail in “Wifey”– not only of character, but of place and time — is completely knowing, and the quartet of actors, directed by the author, couldn’t be more in tune with the roles and with each other.
The Paradise, which Noonan founded more than 10 years ago, is committed to moving scripts from stage to screen, and the company plans to film “Wifey” after four weeks of performances. What kind of movie “Wifey” will make is anyone’s guess. But those 70 people at each performance will not likely forget the live experience anytime soon.