Stuart Greenman’s “Silence, Cunning, Exile” is less a meditation on the life and death of photographer Diane Arbus than a sophomoric exploitation of it. That implies more irony — Arbus was herself accused of exploiting her sometimes uncomprehending subjects — than merited by the play or this production, which tries to shock but does so only in its incompetence.
The title, taken from James Joyce, aptly refers to Arbus, though only the third aspect is effectively related here. Nothing succeeds like suicide: Following the high points of Patricia Bosworth’s well-known Arbus biography, the play begins and ends with flashing images of a woman stepping into a bathtub and slashing her wrists, as audio of an Apollo countdown is heard. The scenes in between reveal the artistic growth and gradual alienation of Greenman’s Arbus stand-in, Suzie (Elizabeth Marvel). She begins as assistant to her fashion photographer husband, Donald (Denis O’Hare), though her taste for the unfashionable is evidenced early, when she has a bathing beauty turn to face the camera head-on in order to shoot the shiner that’s been discreetly hidden in profile.
The play spans the ’50s and ’60s, time periods marked by musical cues — Chubby Checker, Herman’s Hermits — and forays into a demimonde that, with greater and greater urgency, is seeping into the popular culture. Several scenes are set at a Martha’s Vineyard beach house, where best friends Suzie and Beryl (Margaret Whitton), a poet, have sexually and professionally teasing getaways with their husbands that all too predictably resolve in games of humiliation and one-upmanship: They’re beatniks adrift, without a proper coffeehouse to anchor them.
“Are we doing a ‘normal’ thing?” one asks during a beachside reverie. After World War II, another replies, there is no such thing: “Normal? Human nature doesn’t exist.”
Once detached from these demanding women, the husbands fare a lot better than the wives: Beryl ends up institutionalized after a breakdown in Europe, while Suzie falls under the influence of a Svengali mentor, Isaac (Rocco Sisto), who continually pushes her beyond the limits of convention. Before long, Suzie is bringing back pictures of outcasts from various Times Square side shows — freaks, dwarfs, transvestites, prostitutes — and trading sex for entree into their lives, an intimacy that gives the pictures their astonishing power. There are also controversial shots, such as those of retarded children who cannot possibly have understood what was going on.
Amazingly, however, Greenman has little to say about any of this, offering instead mere “snapshots” from a life, and not always very interesting ones at that; cliche rules.
With Caryl Churchill’s “Mad Forest” in 1992, director Mark Wing-Davey demonstrated an extraordinary gift for weaving staccato material like this into a tapestry now dreamlike, now nightmarish. Here it becomes clear that those gifts are dependent on the quality of the yarn, so to speak. And the performances, with the exception of O’Hare and Marvel (she’d be perfect as Elizabeth Wurtzel in a film of “Prozac Nation”), are as self-conscious and inept as the words these unlucky actors are forced to speak.
Even that usually reliable designer Derek McLane, in trying to create a series of semi-realistic settings within the framework of a mock-photographic style, achieves only an impoverished overall look. To steal Walter Kerr’s famous dismissal of “I Am a Camera” (a far worthier work): “Me no Leica.”