Last Tuesday night, down the way from the Playwrights’ Center, where I’d just seen the second live reading of Lee Blessing’s new play, Minneapolis/St.Paul, I bumped into lead actor Jeffrey Carlson at Tracy’s Bar. I’d gone there to slip the post-show crowd and gather myself after an intense few hours of absorbing and talking about this strange and delightful new play. Carlson was clearly doing something equivalent, staring into space while pushing a glass of wine between his hands on the bar top. But neither of us could help it: we just had to keep talking about this play.
“Lee gave me my first job out of Juilliard,” he explained (Thief River, Signature Theatre Company) “and I would do anything for that man.” He chuckled, sighed, and dropped his head to his wineglass. “Then I read the script, and thought: ‘I’m doing what?”
It’s been a decade since Carlson last wore high heels in performance, for the role of Zoe on Days of Our Lives, but remembering how to walk in them was probably the smallest challenge he faced in reading for the protagonist of Blessing’s new play, a cross-dressing, bisexual bigamist, named Mandy or Randall depending on which side of the Mississippi he/she is on. In Minneapolis, he’s Randall, husband of type-A wedding planner Lauren, and father of whip-smart high-schooler Jen. In St. Paul, she’s Mandy, wife of the unassuming, blue-collared August and reluctant stepmother of August’s 20-something junkie son, Case. There’s a third space, The Cabin, where he/she has explored their identity in secret for years, while also cranking out their paid work, writing murder mystery novels. Mandy/Randall’s life is a patchwork of fact and fiction, a world in which truth “tends to naturally self-adjust.” Mandy/Randall is a mess of charm, wit and folly, and Carlson had no problem winning over the audience both nights.
It’s a challenging play to stage though, which is perhaps why Lee Blessing has spent much of this year refining it. An early draft was read this time last year at The Playwrights’ Center, without an audience, and has since been workshopped at four other theaters. The most recent reading was the only one in which Blessing felt the play didn’t work, due to a hasty one-day rehearsal process: “Actors can’t pick it up that fast,” he explained simply, “because of the fluid style and the sheer number of things an actor needs to keep in mind.” He was relieved to finish the workshop tour at the Playwrights’ Center, where he knew it would get four whole days with a director and actors, an almost unheard-of amount of time in the increasingly cash-strapped world of regional theater.
It probably goes without saying, but the narrative is not linear. Its structure reminded me of a labyrinthine crime story, a post-mortem procedural whose secrets unwind via present-day recollections that meld into flashbacks. Only this was not television—not even a full stage production—so there were no cutaways or special effects, just actors on stage with scripts in their hands. In one moment, Mandy tells the story of how she met August, and the next moment she’s there, meeting him in a gay bar in rural Minnesota. Then in comes her other partner, Lauren, and their daughter Jen, as present-day spectators to this most intimate memory. They critique Mandy’s dress and scoff at her cliché flirtation, wondering aloud about how blind they were to their husband/father’s other life. Such carefully-constructed confluences of time, place, and character are remarkably efficient: a scene that lasts only a few minutes reifies the voyeurism of our social media-infused culture while also exposing the harsh truth that, oftentimes, chasing self-realization means harming those we love most.
These brief, rich vignettes alternate with monologues in which each character gets their chance to speak their truth. Perspective constantly shifts, and with it, our sense of right and wrong. Such a decentered narrative, Director Jeremy Cohen says, can make the play a tough sell. “A play that doesn’t behave well is scary to producers”, because it requires the audience to wrangle, to work, with an unfamiliar form. Add to this that “the imaginative space to do that work is constantly being eroded” by 24/7 web-based entertainment, and you can see why producers might balk. It was not always this way, says Blessing: “when I started writing [in the 1970’s] the question was, ‘what have we never seen before on stage? What will surprise me, trouble me?’ Now, audiences want ‘what will reassure me I’m absolutely right about everything.’ But, he says, “that’s not what I write.”
So Cohen followed his lead, as the Playwrights’ Center does. And though the play does buck dramaturgical convention in a number of ways, it’s able to do so on the foundation of at least one tried and true convention: strong characters. Mandy/Randall steals the show, but each character is complex and recognizable, their own mix of profundity and banality, wisdom and folly, altruism and selfishness. Each makes you laugh in a different way.
The final wrinkle in this collaboration was the addition of acclaimed costume designer Trevor Bowen, whose presence in the workshop proved to be critical to helping Jeffrey Carlson unlock his inner Mandy. After trying on several combinations of dresses and blouses, Bowen had Carlson try on a pair of skinny jeans. He rolled up his sleeves, put in a beret, and “Suddenly, he occupied the space in a whole new way,” says Cohen. “I said, ‘whatever you just did, do the entire play like that.’” It was a small but crucial detail that, with just a director and playwright in the room, might have been missed.
I talked a while longer with Jeffrey Carlson at the bar about his life and work: what a fractured reality it is to be in theatre. Before this, he’d been in New York for a show, then in Chicago for a day to teach Shakespeare, and was flying out again the next morning to audition. So too the rest of the cast, and the audience, was scattering off back to our own lives, to our own slice of our increasingly fractured reality. This play didn’t change that--no play could. But it reminded me that in a world where the truth feels slippery and connection feels fleeting, long periods of wandering don’t mean we’ll forever be lost.