Stephen Mellor in Bitter Bierce
(Photo: Dona Ann McAdams)
Stephen Mellor in Bitter Bierce
(Photo: Dona Ann McAdams)
Mac Wellman is a playwright obsessed with language. Is there any other kind, you might ask? 'Get out more often' might be the response. Perhaps because major theaters have a stated preference for it, there are so many writers whose language remains solely a means to convey character, plot, and setting that you'd think naturalism was invented yesterday. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But if you're interested in contemporary plays which have dared the tamest version of the transformation seen in painting over the last hundred years, Wellman's scripts would be among the few places you could look.

But the stodgy old stage has been changing, and the change is welcome. The influence of Wellman and other pioneers is being felt increasingly in the work of younger writers like Kirk Bromley, Melissa James Gibson, and Sheila Callaghan. And while it has a reputation for being challenging, Wellman's work is often relatively simple, in that his poetry is not dauntingly complex, and repetition features prominently in his pieces. The hearer is faced with the same puzzles multiple times in one piece, offering a chance to decipher them if he will choose to engage them.

Like many who encounter Ambrose Bierce at an early age, Wellman felt an affinity for the work of an essayist, journalist, fiction writer, and more sardonic contemporary of Mark Twain. A Midwesterner who moved to San Francisco after fighting for Lincoln at Shiloh, Bierce began his writing career on the West Coast, a career overshadowed (some believe unfairly) by Huck Finn's pa. Wellman, having adapted Bierce's story The Difficulty of Crossing a Field into a short opera which played two years ago in San Francisco, offers us another view of Bierce in his one-man bioplay Bitter Bierce, or the Friction We Call Grief, served up through March 2 at PS 122.

We need a man like Ambrose Bierce today. A woman like him would be equally welcome, perhaps more so -- someone of any gender who can comically skewer the corruption, provincialism, and piety which have marked the American character since our first days as a modern nation. Starring Stephen Mellor as the author of the short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, perhaps Bierce's best-known work, Bitter Bierce feels like Wellman, though most of its words belong to Bierce. Made of pastiches from the post-bellum master's writings, the sections of this play are not linked narratively as much as thematically, each introduced by hilarious definitions from the writer's own Devil's Dictionary, such as "Saint: noun. A dead sinner, revised and edited." Mixing Bierce's autobiographical and fictional samples in hazily chronological order, the play is an endorsement of an undervalued literary force, and a reflexive glossary on the part of Wellman. One of the definitions Bierce offers is so clearly an exegesis of Wellman's views that it could have been his words: "Realism, noun. The art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads."

But the show is not an exploration of Wellman's writing, or the inner life of the subject. Bierce's statement that "We think in words, we cannot think without them" is talismanic to the playwright, and he demands we consider Bierce through what he said in print and person, not what he did. To a lesser degree than in plays that Wellman composes rather than adapting, language is the protagonist of this show. Wellman toys with the notion of the bioplay here, taunting us with its implied focus on character, but denying us that simple formula. In fact, the collage of fact and fictional writings by one of our country's original literary curmudgeons ends up hypnotizing us with its particular rhythm and tone. We experience the punch of the biographical details that are imparted with some satisfaction, but overall we don't really feel we've gotten to know this man. If the protagonist is language in this piece, Bierce's deteriorates, but not compellingly enough to create gripping drama. The dour refrain Bierce recites later in the proceedings, "nothing matters," is a banality which describes both his personal and literary decay, but carries less dramatic weight than his sharper pronouncements. And the ending, an excerpt from Owl Creek Bridge, will offer more resonance for Bierce fans than others.

As an introduction to or reminder of Bierce's talent, which rivals Wilde's in its penchant for epigram, the show is a great pleasure, and buoys us with that scintillating wit and the bravura performance of Mellor as Ambrose the Acrid. Production details are nicely rendered, with scenic and lighting designs by Kyle Chepulis appropriately spare and abstract, alongside production graphics by David Prittie, which enhance the mood elegantly. Mellor's delivery, sardonic, bitter and resigned, gains momentum as the audience becomes accustomed to the truly uncommon wit he plays. Had Wellman, who also directs, called for some more variation in tone from Mellor, a greater accessibility might have been achieved.

But does Wellman want that? Finally, the desire to communicate underlies the impulse to write plays. In the ongoing struggle between clarity and lying, between obfuscation and accuracy, Mac Wellman is one of our contemporary classics. While he does not always satisfy, even when he adopts the language of others, it remains his own, challenging and powerful. In this way, Wellman remains his own protagonist, more honestly than most contemporary playwrights can be.