American author Denis Johnson (1949-2017), best known for the acclaimed story collection Jesus’ Son and the National Book Award-winning novel Tree of Smoke, often wrote about misfits as part of his vision of a semi-mythic West. His play Des Moines from 2007, one of seven he wrote, now having its New York premiere at Theatre for a New Audience, includes these themes. The play brings together five unlikely Iowa people for an impromptu party that seems to go off the rails. We are never certain if it’s all a dream or if it really happened. While the cast led by Johanna Day, Arliss Howard and Michael Shannon seem to know what is going on, we the audience are entirely left out of the equation.
In the upstairs flat of a two-family building in Des Moines, Iowa, married couple Marta and Dan are talking at cross purposes. He is concerned about the woman who keeps looking for him whose husband had a ride in his cab recently before his plane went down 30 minutes later. Marta’s mind is on a shocking diagnosis she has received at the doctor’s. As a result she has invited Father Michael to stop in around dinner time to help her in her time of need. The widow, a Mrs. Drinkwater, shows up to reclaim her husband’s ring which Dan has somehow gone home with. Dan and Marta’s grandchild, Jimmy, a transwoman who is in a wheelchair due to her botched surgery, sleeps in the next room decorated with Christmas lights. Wanting to teach Mrs. Drinkwater about their favorite alcoholic beverage, depth chargers which need whiskey and beer, Dan and Marta go out to get more supplies.
When they return, the five of them take turns drinking and singing karaoke. All seem to be on a separate journey in their own spaces. Father Michael who is celibate is recently into wearing makeup and lipstick. Mrs. Drinkwater has lost her identity now that she is without her husband. Jimmy attempts to stand and get out of the wheelchair which seems to be impossible as of yet. Marta wishes her medical diagnosis was that of someone else and misses her daughter Francine who died of an overdose. Dan, as do several of the other characters, thinks he is not awake but dreaming. We never do find out if it is all a dream though it ends as it began without a complete resolution.
Arin Arbus, best known for her riveting Shakespeare productions at TFANA but has also directed Shannon on Broadway in Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune, has kept the play on an even keel without revealing any of its secrets. The actors are totally convincing in their unique and individual roles although they do not reveal much of their backstory. Howard is manic as Dan who seems to be going through a midlife crisis. Day’s Marta is both rueful and nostalgic for a long gone past. Shannon appears to be a priest who has lost his faith or who is exploring his identity for the first time in years. Nef is quite colorful as Jimmy who is in need of a name change for her new identity. Simms continually reveals new depths as they question her about her life and she expresses her deepest feelings. While it is not the actors’ fault, the play ultimately does not seem to get anywhere although all five characters go on their own journeys.
Riccardo Hernández’s setting is a combination of a very realistic blonde wood suburban kitchen combined with a red back room awash with Christmas lights and decorations. Qween Jean has dressed each of the actors in a different style to define their different characters. The lighting by Scott Zielinski has subtle changes for succeeding scenes. While Mikaal Sulaiman’s sound design is generally fine, Nef is difficult to understand at times though it could be an unfamiliar Midwestern accent.
Arin Arbus’ production is excellent in putting the play on the stage but the script by Denis Johnson will have much of the audience scratching their heads. The drunken party that occurs is entirely convincing in the manner of many previous party plays but the characters’ journeys and behavior are quite opaque. Is it all a dream and if so what is the message? Most people will go away without a clue and feeling unsatisfied. This may be a problem with other novelists’ plays but Johnson is no longer here to elucidate or to do rewrites.
Des Moines (extended through January 8, 2023)
Theatre for a New Audience
Samuel H. Scripps Mainstage at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, 262 Ashland Street, in Brooklyn
For tickets, visit http://www.tfana.org
Running time: one hour and 40 minutes without an intermission