It’s perfectly reasonable to be sadly disappointed by Pulitzer Prize-winning (“Dinner With Friends”) New Haven playwright Donald Margulies’ two one-act plays “Two Days.” The longer of the two, 55-minute “July 7, 1994,” which was commissioned by the Actors Theater of Louisville and premiered there in 1995, barely achieves medical soap-opera status, while the new 20-minute “Last Tuesday,” commissioned by the Long Wharf Theater, is mostly an irritating cacophony of cell-phone conversations aboard a commuter train that quite fails to illuminate its apparently serious theme. Margulies is a long way from his best here.
“Last Tuesday” juxtaposes the ordinary banalities of everyday life with the catastrophes that seem to be crowding in on us all more insistently day by day. As five passengers travel from New York to New Haven one evening, they talk loudly and rudely on their cell phones, chat amongst themselves, try to read or whatever. During the chatter there’s a mention, among other local references by a married couple, of having “tickets to Long Wharf,” which seems self-servingly tacky under the circumstances. Behind the chatter, a disembodied female voice recites a litany of catastrophes that seem to range from 9/11 to the recent Rhode Island nightclub fire — incinerated bodies and all — the voice’s final line being, “Some thought it was fireworks and kept on dancing.”
But it’s not until a pre-teen boy suddenly appears, bloody, ragged and dusty as if he’s a survivor of a catastrophe, that the passengers and the conductor pay any attention to the horrors of the outside world. After remaining mute for some minutes, the boy eventually keens what sounds like a Kyrie (“Lord, have mercy”) to bring the play to its entirely unsatisfying end. Is the boy meant to be real or a symbolic phantom? And what impact, if any, has his appearance had on the others?
“Two Days” then switches to “July 7, 1994,” which turns out to be one day in the life of a doctor who is a volunteer in a free clinic in a city like New Haven. It begins before 7 a.m. with her husband waking her from a nightmare, which she describes as including a flood of blood, and then switches to the clinic and a quartet of her patients. They are three unhappy women, one Puerto Rican, two black, one of whom is dying of AIDS, another being abused, and one man with bipolar disease who hasn’t been taking his Lithium. One way or another they get to the doctor even though, as she admits later to her husband, the day was a “completely typical” one.
In addition to being berated by her patients as she tries to help them and having to cope with the Puerto Rican woman not being able to speak English (her lines are translated on an overhead screen), the doctor has to listen to what sounds like a similar blood-soaked dream from the woman when she returns late in the day. The play ends with the doctor’s husband relating how he spent the day with their baby son, telling the plot of a “Seinfeld” episode and comforting his wife when she bursts into tears.
But in neither play does the writing, acting and direction add up to a persuasive whole, “Last Tuesday” being particularly unpersuasive. Frankly, it looks as though Margulies dashed it off as a curtain-raiser to his existing, none-too-successful one-act “July 7, 1994” without ever giving sufficient thought to how it would actually work on stage. And director Lisa Peterson, who directed “July 7, 1994” in its Louisville premiere with a different cast, hasn’t found the key to making either of the plays work.