I’m Laughing But Don’t Ask Me Why

Square in the Eye Lys

by Jack Gelber
Presented by the Establishment Theatre Company, Inc. at the Theatre de

The Wives

by Lionel Abel
Presented by Theatre: New York at Stage 73

The themes of Jack Gelber’s third play concern death and marriage. Significantly, in Square in the Eye, they go together like Scylla and Charybdis. We have characters who cannot act, and action without character. No one’s in touch: neither with each other nor themselves. Within a rackety mis-enscène, an arena of fallen idols, we hear of the death of domesticity and of the daily death of belief. Social identity is a mess, religious identity a scream. I’m laughing but don’t ask me why, announces someone. No doubt it is Gelber’s intention to allegorize America as a schizoid society, a sort of split-level consciousness. Certainly his style serves. On the one hand, pop art epic theater with vaudeville fantasy; on the other, old school psycho-drama. Further, at the Theatre de Lys the whole production is staged like a house afire, and the play is a false alarm.

Ed Stone, its aging hero, is a school teacher and a failed painter. His students are more or less juvenile delinquents, his intimates are squalid and slick. A ballsy, panicky little guy, a quasi-bohemian malcontent, Ed has the manners of a stand-up comic: acrid gaze across the footlights, cigarette in mouth. He comes on heartless as a cigar store Indian, but he’s really full of mush. He’s also full of echoes. Ah the battle of the sexes, there’s nothing like it! he twitters. Ah the old questions, there’s nothing like them! (Beckett in Endgame.) Like Camus’s Meursault, Ed cannot make the appropriate response. With his wife, there’s nothing but contretemps. He loves Sandy, but love’s a drag. When Sandy dies, he trades jokes, not because he wants to, but because what’s left? Unlike Meursault, when alone, he cries.

At the hospital, Sandy performs a sociological parody. St. Joan of the Stockyards, perhaps. She is for Civil Rights, Nuclear Disarmament, Marchers for Peace. And over the loudspeaker, the crowd cheers. (The winking that goes on in Square in the Eye could put a burlesque routine to shame.) At the funeral, one kid says: Ugh, Sandy, she wasn’t even a good cook! The woman who wasn’t a good cook has undergone the martyrdom of middle-class parents whose dream is Miami Beach. There’s a Mama Dumpling (Oy, Sandy, how can you shame us, living in such a dump!), and a Papa Bear. He calls Ed a no-goodnik, he mawkishly remembers an immigrant past, he flutters greenbacks over his daughter’s bed. Jewish self-hatred runs riot throughout, but it’s merely authorial indulgence, or caricatured self-love.

Gelber is callous and he is coy. He’s always unabashedly flirting. He wants to subvert like Mephisto (pronounced Brecht) and tickle like Puck (pronounced Murray Schisgal). To a degree, he succeeds. A whiff of sulphur hangs in the air, and Gelber the gagster is as persistent as a census taker. When the doctor garbles Sandy’s medical report, a Chopin étude tinkles in the background. When the undertaker extols walnut caskets, Saint-Saens fiddles in the distance. As Ed remarries, with Sandy hardly in her grave,…

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