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Giving and Getting 

A bold and passionate play whose soap-opera ending barely diminishes its power

Wednesday, May 11 2005
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In perhaps the most startling moment of the Magic Theatre's production of The Rules of Charity, a young woman, Loretta (Arwen Anderson), who lives in a poky shoe-box apartment with her disabled father, Monty (Warren David Keith), sits on the kitchen table dangling her feet. Exuding the dreamy aura of the storybook mother-to-be, Loretta meditatively massages her potbelly. "I glow with goodness," she says, inhaling deeply as if practicing prenatal yoga. Then she pokes her stomach with a lit cigarette, deflating the balloon hidden under her shirt with an ear-cracking pop.

Loretta's pseudo pregnancy pretty much sums up the emotional landscape of disabled playwright John Belluso's new drama. Dripping bathos and bubbling anger, the brutal yet funny image suggests an environment in which things are not what they seem: Acts of generosity and good will often have little in common with the motives that lie beneath them, and emotions swing wildly between love and hate.

At one level, Belluso's engrossing play describes what it's like to eke out a living in America on meager disability checks and food stamps. If poverty isn't enough to define Monty -- whose cerebral palsy keeps him confined to a wheelchair and his daughter confined to the state of permanent caregiver -- as a social pariah, the fact that he's gay ought to do it. In many ways, Monty is a victim, a sort of modern-day Caliban, grotesque and easily exploited. Physically abused by Loretta, who often beats up her dad in frustration, and emotionally mistreated by the closet-homosexual building janitor, LH (Andrew Hurteau), and the landlord's spoiled twentysomething daughter, Paz (Sally Clawson), Monty retreats into books and journal writing.

Yet for all the victimization, Monty often revels in his suffering. Much to the consternation of LH, he threatens to publish the contents of his journal, which, among other things, describes his feelings for the handsome (if not terribly well read) workman. He further vents his misery by repeatedly throwing himself out of his wheelchair onto the ground like a toddler having a tantrum. One of his favorite pastimes involves imagining what life would have been like for him during other historical periods. At one point, Monty describes what happened to deformed children in ancient Greece: "A great section of earth was dug from the ground, a round ditch with a large stone in the middle of it. This was called the Apothetai, which means the 'Place of Exposure,'" he says, savoring every detail of the barbaric vision. "My twisted body would be left on that stone, and those who brought me here would leave me on this rock; they would turn and walk away."

At another level, Charity provides a lacerating critique of altruism -- that most highly prized of American virtues. To quote then-President Ronald Reagan, speaking at the United Way centennial celebrations in 1986, "Our deep-rooted spirit of caring, of neighbor helping neighbor, has become an American trademark -- and an American way of life. Over the years, our generous and inventive people have created an ingenious network of voluntary organizations to give help where help is needed ...." But as Belluso's drama so artfully demonstrates, there are no truly selfless acts. And compassion (as the political theorist Hannah Arendt once noted), being born out of inequality, makes a poor substitute for social justice. Ultimately, the play suggests, society looks no more kindly upon those with "deformities" such as poverty and sickness today than it did in ancient times.

This philosophy is memorably, if not always successfully, explored in the way Monty (both as an individual and as an archetypal American charity case) elicits polar responses from the other characters. Loretta's pursed-lipped terseness, as portrayed by Anderson, makes One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest's Nurse Ratched look like Florence Nightingale. Even when Loretta is kind to Monty, helping him gently back into his wheelchair after one of his masochistic tumbles, she's plotting to numb him with sleeping pills in order to enjoy a hot night with her new squeeze, Horace (Gabriel Marin). Loretta knows she's being cruel, but her self-awareness serves only to compound her sense of entrapment. There's no genuine attraction between Horace and Loretta, yet she brings the dim but affable ex-fish factory worker home just the same. Whether Loretta is motivated by a desire to hurt her father or a general self-loathing, Anderson's subtle performance highlights the emotional complexity of the character's relationship with her father, herself, and the social system as a whole.

The powerful examination of American attitudes toward welfare and charity is less expertly executed in the second half of the play. The transformation of the cartoonishly pretentious documentary filmmaker Paz and the janitor LH into stuffy born-again Christians is embarrassingly obvious. Earlier, during a hilariously misguided attempt by Paz to interview Monty about being "gay and disabled and on Social Security," the drama cleverly alludes to the egotistical motivations behind the young woman's desire to make a documentary about charity. But the aggressiveness of the couple's plan to acquire Monty's potentially salacious journals toward the end undermines the subtlety of their self-centered power games, played under the mantle of charitable endeavor. While the long-standing role of Christianity in shaping this country's attitude toward charity is important to the worldview of Belluso's play, the sudden, glaring appearance of sanctimonious Scripture sticks out like a dowager working a soup line dressed in a voluminous hat.

This criticism is no reflection on Clawson and Hurteau, who imbue Paz and LH with a larger-than-life exuberance without overplaying the characters' ugly sides. The precise rhythms of Chris Smith's direction make the clattering runaway plot palatable. And the uncompromising hostility of Kris Stone's set -- with its back wall of corrugated steel, characterless furniture, and scattered TV monitors -- further helps to prevent the action from becoming Oprah material.

Though in need of a little refinement, The Rules of Charity is a bold and passionate work. The play left me fuming at the erosion of the welfare state, and has led me to question the motives behind my own acts of charity and to think about the relationship between the giver and the receiver on a larger scale. In this frame of mind, it was ironic to open my press kit and find, on one side, a leaflet promoting the Magic's next season of new plays, and on the other, an advertisement for Macy's upcoming "Community Shopping Day" ("an all-day shopping event dedicated to raising funds for local nonprofit organizations"). "Buy your $10 ticket today," said the ad. "All proceeds go to Magic Theatre."

About The Author

Chloe Veltman

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