David Spencer – Aisle Say, 1995
Now here’s an interesting paradox … I recently reviewed “The Monogamist” a play about contemporary sexual politics that is, by today’s standards of candor, quite mild, but that nonetheless struck me as depraved at the core, because I thought its premise dishonest, and its regard for humanity misanthropic at best. Meanwhile, I’ve just seen “Quills” by Doug Wright at the New York Theatre Workshop, a play in which the Marquis de Sade figures prominently … a play, too, in which depravity (imagined, implied, explicit, verbal and visual) increases geometrically as the play moves inexorably from dark comedy to Grand Guignol shockfest … and yet, at the core, I find it to be entirely noble. I think that’s because, unlike “The Monogamist“, it comes by its outrages honestly, and is, when all is said and done, despite everything, a passionately humane play.
Oh, and by the way, have I mentioned that it’s the best thing I’ve seen all year? Well, that, too, so order your tickets and then continue reading. I’ll wait … [Insert sound of aimless humming here … ]
Now you’re back, here’s the premise: In 1807, on the outskirts of Paris, the Marquis’ wife, the Rubenesque Renée Pélagie (Lola Pashalinski) beseeches the head of the Charenton Asylum, Doctor Royer-Collard (Daniel Oreskes) to deal with her infamous husband. That husband is, of course, the Marquis de Sade, whose notorious excesses (most of them literary) have created havoc with her social standing. The Doctor makes it clear that his services won’t come cheap … but he guarantees satisfaction.
He assigns a young priest, Abbé de Coulmier (Jefferson Mays), to minister to the Marquis’ soul: at the very least, to see the wickedness of his salacious, even seditious writings. But the Marquis (Rocco Sisto) will not see. A flamboyant and charismatic figure, he will not see, nor will he concede, nor will he be silenced. He thrives on debate almost as much as he thrives on being provocative, and the more stringent the methods used to keep him from writing, the more creative and grotesque his ways around the censure.
But – curious thing – the more the priest expends effort to still de Sade’s obscene quills, the less clear the line of morality becomes … and the higher the stakes become in the battle of wills … until finally, not only is Doug Wright’s play a ripping good, and brilliantly constructed thriller … but it is also a breathtakingly conceived metaphor about the roles of censorship and pornography in modern society.
One of the most exciting things about Mr. Wright’s play is how offhandedly it flirts with danger, and then how exuberantly it embraces it. In an odd way – and an appropriate way too, given the Grand Guignol effects – Mr. Wright reminds one of horror writer Clive Barker, when the latter first burst upon the scene with his multi-volume short story cycle “The Books of Blood”. Barker seemed to gleefully leap into places that no writer of the genre before him (no, not even that most reliable of entertainers Stephen King) had dared. Doug Wright, too, refuses to shirk the grisly promises implied by his narrative. And better still, each foray into the twisted darkness comes with a perfect dramatic rationale, and serves, in the larger scheme of “message,” to further illustrate the complexities and ambiguities of the issue. Ultimately, I think the playwright does, indeed, take sides … but never by open moralizing. On top of everything else that is wonderful about this stunner of a melodrama is the way the author cagily lets the audience draw their own conclusions.
Carps? One. The latter half of the second act is overwritten, overlong and in sore need of editing. Not because it’s dull, but because the story reaches a point at which its intended ironies become inevitable, and its plotting diagramatic. I won’t go as far as to say that the playwright needs to be ahead of us at this point – I suspect he revels a bit in our “dread” anticipation of what’s inexorably to come – but he indulges this impulse far too gluttonishly, and needs to trust that a little goes a long way, and that the audience is, indeed, “getting it.” But, in light of all else, the indulgence is easily indulged.
Director Howard Shalwitz has made most excellent use of the NYTW’s seemingly cavernous playing space, and, with set designer Neil Patel has accomplished the very neat trick of making Charenton Asylum seem spacious yet claustrophobic … barbaric yet streamlined … cruelly efficient yet ornately baroque … all at the same time. (Special kudos for the key to de Sade’s cell … perhaps the most memorable and resonant bit of propping I’ve ever seen.)
For the most part, the cast could hardly be bettered (though the constant and prodigious spittle shower produced by the otherwise exemplary Mr. Mays in moments of extremis is an unfortunate distraction) – and Rocco Sisto as the Marquis may be giving a career-making performance. In vocal technique and ebullient classical bearing, he puts one in mind, somewhat of a young Frank Langella … but he is very much his own creature, and his de Sade is a portrayal of unusual grace, risk and power.
And playwright Doug Wright, from an inauspicious debut (the abysmal libretto for “Buzzsaw Berkley“), to a work of genuine promise (“Watbanaland” last season at the WPA), emerges for the first time (in the New York arena, at least) as a genuine force to be reckoned with. “Quills“, though, is a lot to live up to. Let’s not forget, in future, when he occasionally misfires (and he will; we all do) how important it is to nurture the truly gifted, and to treat his failures with kindness, even when we can’t treat them with affection. Because out of that kindness will only come more stunning successes. And that helps all of us…