Getting Friendly With Fefu
A production of Maria Irene Fornes' Fefu and Her Friends in Cambridge prompts Filichia to recall his unforgettable experience of the original production.
January 7, 1978. My friend Jayne and I went to TKTS, not knowing what we were going to see. We wound up with tickets for Fefu and Her Friends, the new play by Maria Irene Fornes, who gave us the book for the fascinating musical Promenade. Before the show, though, we stopped in a Mexican restaurant where Jayne ordered a cherry frozen margarita. "Have a sip," she said and, even though I'm not a drinker, I did.
Good Lord, it was delicious, and we each wound up having two of the size marked "grande." Though we didn't opt for those described as "ridiculous," we were pretty ridiculous anyway by the time we reached the American Place Theatre. We struggled down the stairs and straggled to our seats, where we endeavored to read the program. I still remember Jayne saying in an unsteady voice, "Look! The understudy's name is Kathleen Chalfant! Isn't that a pretty name? Kath-leen. Chal-fant." Soon we were repeating her name over and over, just that way. As I say, we were mighty drunk. So we weren't in the best shape to understand this serious new play, in which eight women meet in the living room of a New England country house and talk and talk and talk. It was too much for me in my inebriated state, and I just let the whole thing wash over me.
Then, suddenly, the play came to a stop and an actress broke the fourth wall, saying to the audience, "Fefu would like to invite you into her home." What??? Because Jayne and I were still pathetically looped, we thought we might be imagining things. But soon the audience was walking towards the stage, and we followed them, up some stairs, and past the back wall of the set. There, we were told we'd be split into four groups and, as Jayne and I walked into the bowels of the theater, we gave each other many "What's-goin'-on-here" looks.
With about 20 other people, we were taken into this tiny, tiny room that was made to look like a bedroom, in which there was a night table and a bed--and a person lying in it. Folding chairs were set up around the bed and we were told to sit; I was right next to the actress's head and Jayne was right beside me. Then, the actress softly and intently bemoaned the character's fate, which suddenly struck Jayne as the strangest and funniest thing. I overhead her trying to stifle a giggle, but she just couldn't...and out spurted this hilarious guffaw, which of course made me laugh hysterically, too. The actress continued her introspective discourse on the meaning of life as all 20 theatergoers glared at us in our boorishness, which of course made us laugh all the harder. I'm amazed we weren't asked to leave.
Actually, we were asked to leave--but so was everybody else. Fefu and Her Friends has an unusual conceit in which the same scene is played four times, but the audience revolves from one scene to the next. Apparently, it doesn't matter which scene you see first. But. frankly, I didn't know what I was seeing anyway, because I was blind--and there are none so blind as those who do not stay sober. So. last month, when I saw that there'd be a production of Fefu and Her Friends at the Industrial Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I was looking forward to my second chance with the play. I walked into a room that had been masked with sheets to make a circular space; around the perimeter, there were 48 seats--four groups of 12. I nodded knowingly as to why they were so divided.
"Women are loathsome," Fefu told her friends in a play that would spend some time praising men. Not long after the observation that "revulsion and fascination go hand in hand," there was a gunshot, which we weren't prepared for, because there was no sign in the lobby warning us that there'd be one. (Good! That makes for better drama!) As it turned out, Fefu shot her husband...but only with blanks, just for fun. though there is some discussion that maybe they weren't blanks and she was playing a variation on Russian Roulette. Julia, a woman in a wheelchair, eventually picked up Fefu's rifle and went catatonic for a moment. Makes sense: She had been hit by a bullet some time earlier; hence, that wheelchair.
"I can manage. I'm much stronger now," said Julia, prompting a woman named Emma to jump on the wheelchair and ask for a ride--just before we were all invited into Fefu's house, where my first stop was Fefu's root-cellar. There, Emma, shucking green beans, asked Fefu, "Do you think about genitals all the time? Everybody has them. They just pretend they don't." There was also some talk that, "in heaven, there's a divine register of sexual performance." Fefu then told of a cat she feeds who "shat all over the kitchen" but she still continued to feed him, because she's afraid of him.
Soon thereafter, we were brought to the bedroom, where I'd disgraced myself 24 years ago. Without our laughter ringing in my ears, I could hear what Julia had to say from her bed: "They clubbed me. The broke my head. They broke my hands." She then stated that the so-called dirty parts of our bodies are the most important--genitals, anus, mouth, and armpits--before admitting that armpits really weren't that important.
Next, we were brought to the study and ensconced on a comfy sofa. There, Cindy and Christina were each reading but occasionally stopped to comment on what they read. "A lady in Africa divorced her husband because he was a cheetah." (Get it?) Then it was off to the kitchen, where two of Fefu's other friends were discussing what the average length of a relationship is (seven years and three months was the conclusion) and how it can be categorized: "Three months of love, one year of passing disturbance, one year of wondering what's wrong, two years of wondering if it should end, one year of trying to find a way to make it end, and then two years assessing what happened." Sounds right to me. But soon after, one said: "Our lives have gone in such different directions, we were off in a new direction. It turned out to be where we started, only this time we were supposed to be on a croquet lawn." While they played, Fornes delivered her message: "We cannot survive in a vacuum. We must exist in a community."
Christopher Scully's production was well done and the women were both engaging and convincing in their roles. (I couldn't help noticing that Paula was played by Marisa Pell, the name that Martin Gottfried mistakenly attributed to Mata Hari's notorious Marisa Mell in his Broadway Musicals book, which prompting a friend of mine to write Gottfried and say: "Good God, hasn't the poor girl suffered enough?") While I like plays where people bond with each other, and it was fun to be but a yardstick away from the action, I still don't think much of Fefu and Her Friends. And, this time, I was as decent as a minister, as sober as a judge.