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Fuddy Meers

J. Smith Cameron
in Fuddy Meers
Photo: Joan Marcus
One could have muddy fears about Fuddy Meers, now in its Off-Broadway open run, but dwelling prickly on plotline improbabilities would take all the friskiness out of David Lindsay-Abaire's goofy, off-the-wall, door-lacking farce. Like any breakthrough play by a breakthrough playwright, Fuddy Meers has its share of chips and flaws, a lacking layer of dramaturgical polish that might have been applied had the writer not been so determined to make his mark. Yet what contemporary playwriting has long been missing-and what Lindsay-Abaire serves up in dopamine-deprived abundance--is an unhinged sense of playfulness and whimsy. Theater, my friends, is fun again.

Fuddy Meers opens with Claire (J. Smith Cameron) waking up to greet the morn, yet this morn, like all her morns, finds her unable to remember anything of the day before, or the day before that, or the day before that. It's a hell of a daring conceit to have a central character suffering from amnesia-or at least a faux-factual form of it-but the idea, curiously, roots the play like the calming eye of an oncoming comedic storm.

Typically Claire is aided in her tabula rasa life by her husband Richard (Robert Stanton), who has meticulously created a handbook as a guide to living, moment to moment, throughout the day. On this particular day, however, Claire is scooped away by a Limping Man (Patrick Breen), a schizoid ex-con with a barely functioning, deformed ear who soon persuades Claire to allow him to abduct her (think about that). Limping Man, spinning tall tales of brotherly love for Claire, soon brings her to the home of her mother, Gertie (Marylouise Burke). A stroke victim, Gertie has regained her power of speech, but what she no longer possesses is the ability to pronounce compound words or adhere to anything remotely resembling English syntax. As Gertie stammers through and helplessly strangulates the language, phrases like "funhouse mirrors" quickly become "fuddy meers" and the fun, in short, begins.

When Richard discovers that Claire is missing, he quickly sets out to find her, bringing in tow Kenny (Keith Nobbs), Claire's teenage son, a mopheaded pothead for whom the term "irreverent" would be a titanic understatement. Still, given the bizarre characters moving about Kenny's THC-laced world, Lindsay-Abaire does make a rather compelling case for continuous cannibis consumption.

While searching the highways high and low for Claire, Kenny and soon Richard get high (a scene staged delightfully by director David Petrarca), setting up the perfect moment for a policewoman--with the unlikely name of Heidi (Clea Lewis)--to pull them over. Under normal circumstances Richard is a gentle man, but this time, determined to find his wife, he masterfully subdues Heidi, holds her at gunpoint, and the three of them continue the journey.

Richard already suspects that Claire is with her mother, and when they finally arrive at Gertie's house, they encounter not only Claire and Gertie and the aurally-challenged Limping Man, but another ex-con, Millet (John Christopher Jones), a closet claustrophobe with what can only be described as an unnatural attachment to a invective-loving sock puppet. Plot twists, shocking revelations and endless streams of Gertie's twisted, tongue-tying syntax jauntily follow until the play plays itself to its natural, as it were, conclusion.

Marylouise Burke (left)
and J. Smith Cameron
in Fuddy Meers
Photo: Joan Marcus
What is most interesting about Lindsay-Abaire's construction is more than the strangeness of his characters or the shrewdness of his plotting--one could turn to Charles Ludlam or Joe Orton for similar examples of lunacy. Rather, it's the playwright's mating dance with absurdism and farce. And what a marriage! After all, in earlier, easier times, one could detect a farce through doors on a stage; Lindsay-Abaire, keen in the extreme on breaking down theatrical walls, focuses on the farcicality of life.

Which is not to imply that under Fuddy Meers lurks a work of quirky social consciousness--Fuddy would be duddy if it were--but when you think about a memoryless mother faced with a pothead son, or two neurotic ex-cons so bumbling you wonder how they could have ever committed a crime, or an older mother mangling the mother tongue, the suggestion is that the world today is a fanciful festival of freakizoids. And in a world in which freaks are the norm and the norm is freaky, what could be better than heightened weirdness that no one thinks is odd?

To be sure, none of this non-profundity would be possible without the Holly Goweirdly performance of J. Smith Cameron as Claire. Blessed with jiffy-pop eyes and a voice that glorifies the sardonic, the American theater should treasure this treasure. Whether delivering a bewildered one-liner or interpreting Gertie's gobbledygook, there is something about her performance that captures both Claire's sunny honesty and the spare, humanizing bits of wisdom that she collects, if just for the day, throughout the play. Everyone, including Claire, knows that sleep will transform her into a blackboard slate wiped clean, and yet Claire is fearless, swift, charming, even cunning. It's ultimately not a loss of memory from which Claire suffers, but a deeply affecting lack of dignity, the kind of accumulated sense of learning and accomplishment that a lifetime of living usually provides.

The actress is fortunate enough to be joined by a jolly, dizzy, uniformly wonderful ensemble, beginning with Breen's turn as Limping Man. Not to give away one of the many plot turns that allow Fuddy Meers to handle the hurdle of making sense, but in one scene, when Heidi is placing stitches into the Limping Man's knife-gashed back, Breen reveals himself to be as willing a victim of the freewheeling farceur as the dark-shadowed Naked Angels actor we have occasionally known him to be.

The goofiest roles, naturally, go to the minor characters. Burke, for example, chews through Gertie like a casserole of colliding phraseologies, and to the credit of Petrarca's excellent direction, they are mixed in with enough wacky stage business to turn every jot of kooky shtick into a tittle of shticky kook. Nobbs, as Kenny, and Lewis, as Heidi, work their stuff excellently while Jones, deviating between Millet's own character and the near-Tourette's character of the sock-puppet, swerves from the manic to the bizarre triumphantly. Then again, perhaps playing two such roles in Fuddy Meers is no mere feat. Perhaps it's merely living.

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