Immediate Theatre’s adaptation of David Foster Wallace’s short stories, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, premiered Friday and Saturday night in Paresky auditorium.
Directed by Sophie Montgomery ’14, the all-male cast starred Robbie Amster ’14, Billy Glidden ’14, Amir Hay ’15, Mario Mastromarino ’12, Tallis Moore ’14, Frank Pagliaro ’14, Ryan Pavano ’13, David Phillips ’12, Scott Sanderson ’13, Jack Saul ’13 and Charlie Sellars ’13. As a vicious satire, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men gave us an intense look at the complexities of gender dichotomies and heterosexual relationships in the post-feminist era.
A haunting exploration into the “hideous” minds of men, the play is set as a series of one-sided interviews, conversations and confessions woven into strands of plot that are utterly decontextualized. Even the interviewer is omitted; questions are indicated with a simple “Q” projected onto the screen behind the actors. As a result, the audience is plunged without warning into theatrical monologues rife with misogyny and narcissism. The repellent characters aren’t even given names, and they often seem more like generic stereotypes than distinct individuals. The only unifying motif connecting the fragments is the characters’ desire to figure out what women want and how to use it to their sexual advantage.
The men’s troubles range from the comic to the frightening. The opening skit began with the first subject, Sellars, sitting at the interview table and describing an affliction that is “just weird”: his self-destructive compulsion to scream, “Victory for the forces of democratic freedom!” while climaxing during sex. The glaringly heavy-handed tone of the character is belied by the audience’s (and Sellars’s own) laughter as he shouted out the absurd phrase. His feelings of sexual shame cause him to “totally avoid the ones that say – ‘I think I could love you anyway.’”
Another subject married a woman who “had a good body even after she’d had a kid” because it meant she’d been “pre-tested.” “The kid didn’t blow her body out, so I knew she’d be a good bet to sign on and have kids with and still try to have sex,” Pagliaro said. Pagliaro did a brilliant job as an obnoxious character that claims he has mastered the mechanics of seduction and sexual technique. The other characters hold no such illusions of their understanding of the opposite sex.
The conversation fragments grew darker as an abuser and wife-beater sought counseling for the sake of his own self-esteem. Another cites Victor Frankel’s death-camp memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning, while suggesting that a woman can actually benefit from rape or incest. As he explains, a gang rape, like the Holocaust, isn’t necessarily a bad thing because it might make its victim “more of a complete human being.” He passionately argues that “her idea of herself and what she can live through and survive is bigger now,” and that it “enlarges” her experience of the world (though one cannot help but think of the double-entendre of Wallace’s word choice). Such is the author’s savage talent to shatter our ingrained ideas of morality with agonizing and disturbing affect.
The most resonating segment of the play is the only one that has the narrative breadth and contour of a story. A callow man describes picking up what he calls a “mystic hippie-type” at a music festival for a one-night stand. What was supposed to be an empty night of sex turned into a moving experience for the subject, as the hippie related to him a gruesome tale of having once been brutally raped by a serial sex offender and the spiritual connection she had forged with him during her moments of terror. The young man is disturbed by the woman’s story, but his response is uncomprehending and defensive. Unable to cope with the existential crisis he finds himself in and the feelings this woman evoked in him, he conceded that he fell in love with her that night. Still, it is clear that, like the other characters, he does not know what it means to love.
The stories of this fragmented structure expose the painfully shallow, self-absorbed, deluded combatants who are wandering, lost, on the sexual battlefield. The dramatic momentum of the actors and the earnest dialogue comes across as insightful. But, as a disjointed composite portrait of the male psyche, the play is indeed hideous. The men are self-serving and ultimately unenlightening. As observers of this raw, uncensored male behavior, the audience leaves the auditorium with the loose ends and feelings of disgust that the frenzied play puts forward.