Mesri’s ‘The Optimists’ is a glass half-empty

Julian Mesri ’09’s The Optimists was undeniably a phenomenon. To some, it was an amusing, cynical, absurdist romp as they laughed at the puns and gags while doing their best imitations of sacrosanct churchgoers during the show’s intermittent heavy-handed political soliloquies. I found myself a begrudging member of a different camp – those who found themselves grimacing more often at the play’s consistently overwrought wordplay and acting rather than at the several severed appendages flying through the air, innumerable gunshot wounds and the occasional decapitated head.

Those who liked The Optimists enjoyed it, I think, largely because of what it was not: not comfortable, not escapist (at least in a political sense) and certainly not apologetic. In colloquial terms, we may say that Mesri’s play had balls. Additionally, some enjoyed the Tarantino-esque (although that’s being generous) downpour of stylized cruelty pervading scene after scene, as well as the show’s comedy.

The Optimists’ “plot” is predicated on the absurd belief shared by gentlemen Reginald (Chris Fox ’11) and Weatherly (Nat Hewett ’11) that certain numbers of reported casualties from the war are more aesthetically pleasing than others, odd and prime numbers being especially grotesque. This concept might have soldiered Mesri through as the bizarre spine of a respectably clever and thoughtful one-act, but, in the vastness of The Optimists – the play literally came with its own manifesto – it was more like an ant carrying an elephant.

Other crucial plot elements included a dream about an enormous marshmallow experienced by a frenzied socialite, Lena (Lissy Twaits ‘11), and the inexplicable wanderings of a homeless man Pipo (Alan Arias ’10), who allows his finger to be chopped off in exchange for a few minutes of pity from the gentlemen who later finds himself temporarily transformed into a god for reasons best described as complicated and unsatisfying.
I would not call the play a failure. Instead, I wish to convey that The Optimists was not unsatisfying because it was disturbing – like finding a finger in your first bite of a Big Mac – but instead that it was uninteresting and therefore unsatisfying, like finding a finger on a hand and thinking “Yeah, I already knew that was there,” or nothing at all.

Mesri explained in the program that he hoped to “make a work political without a) boring an audience to tears or b) throwing political jargon down an audience’s throat.” He also explained that he thinks of theater as a place for cheap emotional and aesthetic manipulation. Indeed, I think the play does live up to that last intention fairly well. But I wonder how Mesri thought through the following: when an audience’s emotions are being manipulated, the more they are aware of that fact, the more incentive they require not to tune out.
In short, Mesri’s play was sufficiently alienating in that it was simplistically and overtly political, alternately thinly and imperceptibly plotted and reliant on cheap, though pretty, aesthetic gags to prepare the play’s most convincingly depicted corpse: itself.

While most of the play’s puns and tropes flopped, Fox as Reginald managed to capture the dark humor of the play – with consistently bizarre and enchanting mannerisms and vocal quirks – better than anyone else on stage. Fox can act – and as only a first-year, we can look forward to him doing so, increasingly well, in the next three years. To my mind, breeding a clone army of Chris Foxes for all eight roles is the only method by which The Optimists might have lived up to hype. Hewett’s performance as Reginald’s deranged terror-mate Weatherly, on the hunt for even-numbered corpse-counts, was also admirable, given the character’s un-chartable emotional swings and unaccounted for irrationality.

Arias’ rendition of Pipo, a naive homeless man and victim-turned-god-turned-political-mouthpiece displayed none of the subtlety of his persecutors. His performance was weak, confused and annoying. At several moments Arias reminded me of a kid playing Jesus in a holiday manger scene at the local YWCA. Let’s just say it wasn’t pretty.

Similarly, Paloma Diaz-Dickson ’11 as Flor, the communist cleaning lady/rebel fighter, operated as the mere vessel of wince-inducing cliché. A better actor may have plucked out the cheekiness of many lines and made the part the dramatic focal point it clearly was meant to be. Unfortunately, much of what might have been the play’s best irony disappeared in Flor’s mouth, as Diaz-Dickson often spoke her lines in lieu of performing them.

Aspen Lee Jordan ’11’s performance as Garçon, a cross-dressing waiter and occasional moral compass, was often impressive for doing so much with so little. Garçon is a reactionary teller of truths, declaring over and over again: “There is blood on your hands!” That sort of thing gets old after the tenth utterance or so, but Jordan’s sheer energy and sadistic grin almost made me want to see that scene again.

But not quite. For all of Mesri’s declarations that the play would not be preachy, I found myself increasingly waiting for Arias to pull out a King James Bible from under his Guantanamo torture robe. He did not, but instead commenced a convoluted contradictory sermon.

By that time, however, I had almost tuned out and was reflecting on my favorite moment of the play. Aron Holewinski ’11, playing a clown sporting an American flag skirt, darted onstage where Reginald, Weatherly and others were sitting on the edge of center stage, their feet dangling listlessly. “There’s a war going on, you know!” Holewinski exclaimed. “We know, we know,” came the weak and cacophonous reply of the others.
It was a real moment because it said something true. We are all tired of this war. We all feel like hypocrites (some more than others) going about our routines while our country continues to dig its own grave and the graves of thousands of American soldiers and countless more Iraqis. I only wish Mesri had written a play of lines like these – a searching play, asking what we should do with these emotions and perhaps even finding some answers, because Mesri can and will write better plays. Instead, The Optimists was cheap manipulation, neither edifying nor entertaining enough for us to see more clearly the issues it spends 120 minutes dousing with red food coloring.