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Existential Bugsquash

By Ben Kessler

The costumes are wrong. They have to be discarded. We have to start out naked again and go from there.

—Playwright Wallace Shawn, from the essay “Why I Call Myself a Socialist”

Tom and Sasha, the romantically linked protagonists of Benjamin Kunkel’s play Buzz, share a loft apartment (the play’s sole setting) in a borderline-sketchy neighborhood of an unidentified city. Arriving home, they drop their coats, revealing only unmentionables underneath. Skivvies and scanties are pretty much all they and the other characters wear throughout the play. This is never remarked upon.

Kunkel, a successful novelist and essayist making his playwriting debut here, is possibly trying simultaneously to mock both theatre audiences’ conventional expectations—souls stripped bare—and the gauche literalism one might expect from a novice playwright. Alternatively, or additionally, the near-nudity might be his attempt to infuse the theatergoing experience with an inescapable, low-level awkwardness, so that artists and audience can’t help but trouble each other’s sense of privacy. (Intruders was the play’s title when it premiered in Buenos Aires.) Having only read the script, recently published by n+1 Small Books Press, I can’t say for sure. In any case, the underwear stunt points up Kunkel’s basic ambivalence about what he assumes his audience demands of him, and his unwillingness to play ball without first applying some amount of subversive spin.

So along with costumes, Buzz mostly eschews dramatic conflict, giving us instead a portrait of a Gen-X, yuppie-ish couple crumbling under a variety of stresses—his writer’s block and her pregnancy being the main ones—aggravated and, eventually, embodied by a housefly infestation even professional exterminators can’t expunge. Actually, the houseflies aren’t just in the house but general across the region of whatever country this is (Kunkel doesn’t say). Eco-catastrophe, we gather, is unfolding around the world in plague-like stages. Visitors to the apartment point out that Tom and Sasha, as befits their class origins, are only lightly affected by the swarms. Nonetheless, the insects and their implications disturb our hero and heroine uniquely.

Just as with the near-nudity, however, Kunkel never lets you know how serious he is about any of this symbolism. His strobing tone never lets us adjust to either the brightest or the darkest of the work’s suggestions. Fortunately, flickering through it all is a depiction of the contemporary early-middle-aged bourgeois couple that never wavers in its emotional authenticity. As self-aware as these educated lovers are, their dialogue, e.g. Tom’s dinner party quip that their neighborhood is “a nice balance between hesitant gentrification and hard-core ineradicable poverty,” knows more about their class snobbery than they do. Sasha’s way of responding to feeling threatened by a perfectly harmless younger woman is to call her “twat-for-brains” behind her back—and her choice of words says mouthfuls about where today’s bourgeois culture stands on the old mind-body problem. It’s entirely believable that these two, harboring practically the same pattern of unexamined stress points in their psyches, would fall to pieces when faced with a minor infestation of bugs. And onstage, characters that are entirely believable can never be entirely unsympathetic.

This issue of sympathy is complicated by the fact that Tom is quite obviously Kunkel’s riff on his own persona. (He refers to having sold a past work to Hollywood, as Kunkel famously did with his novel Indecision.) Tom is getting nowhere with his “comic play,” despite Sasha being overeager to serve as his muse, partly because the theatre itself has become comic to him. “If there’s one thing that theatre has consistently criticized, it’s conventional domestic arrangements,” Tom says, “and if there’s one thing that as a social ritual it’s continually reinforced—conventional domestic arrangements. The whole thing’s like a parable not just of the uselessness but the counterproductiveness of culture.”

Tom/Kunkel’s skepticism—encompassing as it does so much of modernism, naturalism, and the avant garde—gives Buzz considerable freshness and intellectual seriousness, yet it also helps explain why this play feels somehow (weirdly) more conservative than past highlights of Western theatre’s war on bourgeois morale and morality. Kunkel never bothers the lid on the middle-class marriage’s politeness pot, let alone tears it off to release the repressed, in stark contrast to what happens in Strindberg, Albee, O’Neill et al.

Also, those masters created women (Miss Julie, Martha from...Virginia Woolf?, Mary from Long Day’s Journey) whose ferocious attacks on men incorporated awesome glissando-like sweeps of emotion that offset, if not obliterated, their makers’ arguable misogyny. Sasha, however, is an undeniably post-feminist character, but for all Kunkel’s sophistication she makes no comparable claim on our subconscious. Always ready to tiptoe around Tom’s ego, she comes off as a latter-day Linda Loman with a Seven Sisters degree. Forced to work a 9-to-5 as Tom scribbles unprofitably away, she’s perhaps even more exploited (in a Marxist sense) than an old-school housewife. And Kunkel’s attempts to treat her sexuality result in Buzz’s most risible lapses. She mocks at one point, “My pussy is as dry and vast as the Gobi Desert,” which sounds like discarded dialogue from Sex and the City 2.

Ultimately, though, it isn’t women but private, intimate life itself that leaves Kunkel stymied, or bored. He unintentionally justifies Tom’s domestic restiveness by imbuing love-talk with a wearisome Linklater-esque quality. (“I think you would be a world historically great mother and I’d like to be their father.”) If his underwear-only rule bespeaks a desire to trouble the boundary between public and private, Kunkel is conflicted even there, because doing so would threaten to permit all sorts of personal qualms and doubts to blot the theoretical horizon of this avowed “Marxist public intellectual.”

To his credit, Kunkel goes all the way with his ambivalence, achieving fully dramatic conflict in the play’s final scene, which pits the protagonists against flies that have, in the couple’s febrile imaginings, taken on human form. Voicing Tom and Sasha’s worst fears, the flies get Kunkel’s best, most wounding dialogue— before Tom violently destroys them. The victorious Tom gets the last word—ironically, a confession of his artistic failure—“There is no play.” The curtain falls on an ominously irresolute note.

Is Kunkel implying that our current political situation requires of us all just such an existential Bugsquash? Does he mean that only by squelching the tumult of our inner lives, disenfranchising the psychic voices that make us feel most vulnerable, will we be able to rise to the world-changing occasion? What it all amounts to is as uncertain as the legacy of Occupy Wall Street.

For Kunkel himself, it’s a different story. It took him several years to write this play, according to interviews, and now that it’s out there he seems to have achieved within himself the catharsis he denies Buzz’s audience. It’s true the play has gotten much less press than Kunkel’s other full-length work this year, the collection of anti-capitalist essays Utopia or Bust: A Guide to the Present Crisis. But when asked by The Awl whether his stint as a Marxist political economist has changed how he writes fiction, Kunkel replied, “I’ve come to feel that writing this stuff...really has helped my fiction, in that I’m not as worried about politics in my fiction...It’s terrible 2014 etiquette to quote own’s [sic] tweet, but the other day I tweeted: ‘Enjoy your symptom.’”

Ben Kessler can be reached at Kessler_b@yahoo.com. His Twitter handle is @koolfresh.

From July, 2014

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